Drivers vie for left-lane rights

Robert Thomson
Columnist December 31, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I read with interest the recent column [Dr. Gridlock, Dec. 4] on traffic traveling too slowly in the left lane on roadways. I have experienced this when someone is going a few miles per hour below the posted limit, and I find it annoying. Now I would like your opinion on a habit of mine that I do not think is annoying, but I am not sure if it is thought of similarly by others.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

I often ride my Harley up Interstate 270 to Frederick on nice days. Because of the right-lane entrances and exits, plus the typical Washington area motorist’s uncanny ability to time their multiple lane swerves just before their exit, I tend to feel most comfortable in the far left lane when there are three or more lanes in a given direction.

While I would just as soon ride at around the posted speed limit, I tend to ride only 10 to maybe 15 mph over the posted limit, thus almost keeping up with most of the traffic around me. However, I still have the occasional car that is doing 20 to 30 mph over the limit come up on me, and I do not move over; forcing them to pass me on the right. So the question is, am I wrong to do this?

— Roger Brauninger, Kensington

Yes and no. But my top concern for travelers is that they arrive safely. All other considerations — including who’s going to arrive first, who’s right and who’s wrong — are secondary.

Brauninger’s letter, written out of a concern for getting along with others in traffic, raises several related issues. For one thing, speeding is not safe. But let’s focus today on the issue of how others might perceive our driving and how that creates a problem for all of us.

Read next about the perceptions of another I-270 traveler, perhaps someone who has been driving the same lanes as Brauninger. This motorist also responded to the column about driver behavior, including travel in the left lane. The letter picks up on my responses, in which I cited instructions in the D.C. region’s driver manuals and also noted some reasons drivers use the left lanes, including the too-numerous left exits on the Capital Beltway and the sheer volume of highway traffic in this area.

Discouraging bad behavior

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

    As for left-lane abuse, please think outside the box — outside the Beltway. 

The design and needs of the Capital Beltway system and its exits — however poor — should not make such behavior acceptable, either there or on outlying arteries.  I’m sure you’ve heard from your readers about how, outside this area, the practice is unacceptable, far less frequent and, in some areas, actually enforced and ticketed.

Using I-270 from the D.C. area, drivers show a constant disregard at almost any time of day for this problem.  It has become the norm, wrong as it is, and increases the danger involved in using those arteries. 

It is more evident this time of year with the dark drive home. Every hill shows, via vehicle lights, the overabundance of cars in the left lane.  The aggressive passing tactics that then come into play are the origins of accidents. The lack of signage to indicate what is correct and the lack of enforcement have made it all acceptable and contribute to our poor safety records.

 Please don’t forget us outside the Beltway, and please don’t sugarcoat things that are flat wrong and illegal.

— Jeff Sabo, Hagerstown

Maryland’s transportation code does require that, under ordinary circumstances, “a person may not willfully drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” Police can ticket drivers in any lane for impeding the flow of traffic, just as they can ticket drivers in any lane for speeding.

If drivers can go 15, 20 or 30 mph over the speed limit, as Brauninger describes and as I’ve observed at some hours, then traffic isn’t being impeded. But Sabo is right in pointing out the problem created by aggressive passing tactics.

The blame for that safety problem rests entirely with drivers who pass aggressively. The rest of us can’t prevent that bad behavior in others, but we can do our bit for safe driving by not provoking it. That means keeping to the right lanes for cruising and allowing faster traffic into the left lanes.

The driver speeding up behind you in the left lane isn’t thinking about why you might be there, only that you’re in front of him and going slower than he wants to go. You can’t enforce the speed limit. But maybe — just maybe — you can protect your fellow drivers by defusing the bad temper coming up in the car behind you.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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