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Driving in the Do-What-You-Want Lane

Left-lane drivers: Inconsiderate or out of room?
Left-lane drivers: Inconsiderate or out of room? (By John Bright -- The Washington Post)

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By John Kelly
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My old Washington Post Radio chum David Burd drove to St. Louis not long ago and upon his return sent me an e-mail:

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"I could not believe the great quantity of inconsiderate people driving in the fast lane while talking on their cellular telephones. When I notified them of my desire to overtake them by flashing my headlights, they responded by becoming excessively agitated."

Actually, that's a translation of what David wrote, his original comments being rather more, um, colloquial. But the points he raised were good ones, familiar to any drivers who have ventured beyond their cul-de-sacs. His chief question was: "What is the international signal for passing on the highway?"

I'm curious to hear what readers think, but I'm convinced there's a fairly simple answer: There isn't a signal for passing, because it's every man for himself -- or woman for herself -- out there. The notion that the left lane is for passing is quaintly obsolete, like waiting an hour after lunch to go swimming or waiting till you're married to have babies. Even leaving aside the truly dangerous motorists -- the ones who weave in and out of traffic like stunt drivers in "To Live and Die in L.A." -- most people seem to drive how they like in whatever lane they're in.

I've decided one reason is that people feel they're less likely to attract police attention if they stay out of the left lane. They're stealth overtakers, hoping to burrow unseen through traffic like a POW trying to tunnel under the wire.

As for flashing your lights to pass, some people react to that like bulls exposed to a red flag. They see it as an insult.

I couldn't find any statistics to back up my belief that highway traffic moves at a lurching sort of pace, vehicles in each lane hungry for an advantage. But Ken Kobetsky of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said there's a reason a pristine left lane used only for overtaking is pretty much a thing of the past: "Part of the problem is we've gotten so much volume that you need all the lanes to carry capacity."

Ken remembers when most states put up signs that read "Slower Traffic Keep Right." "We've pretty much done away with those signs," he said, except on long upgrades.

The subject of special lanes for special purposes reminded me of an incident 30 years ago when my father was stationed in England. A lifelong lover of sports cars, he drove a 1967 Aston Martin DB6. One afternoon we were on the motorway tearing toward Manchester, the car purring in the fast lane -- the right lane over there.

"This is the Aston Martin lane," my father joked. At that instant, as if on cue, headlights flashed in my father's rearview mirror. He moved to the left, and what should glide past us but another Aston Martin, a Vantage V8.

David Burd wonders whether there should be an "on the phone lane" for all those drivers incapable of figuring out how to use their phone hands-free. Good idea. Maybe we could add a makeup-application lane, a fast-food consumption lane, a lane for drivers who like having their dogs on their laps, and a lane in which parents can yell at their kids.

Rockville's Ellen Sweeney wonders whatever happened to the "old thank-you wave." "In the olden days," she wrote, "if somebody let you out of a side street or if a lane was closed, you would do the old thank-you wave to thank the person for letting you in."


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