Another Perspective

Keep Up — or Pay Up!

Left lanes are no longer safe for snails and other slowpokes.

By 5.25.04

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Timid drivers afraid to keep up with the flow of traffic -- hunkered down in the far left lane, both hands clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckled death grip, absolutely refusing to move over -- creating rolling roadblocks and ratcheting up the road rage meter to explosive levels -- may finally be on the payin' paper radar.

In Louisiana -- god love 'em -- a House panel put together a new law that would require all drivers to maintain a minimum pace on Interstate highways (as well as city roads) and step up enforcement of laws that require slower-moving vehicles to stick to the right lane where they belong and yield to faster-moving traffic.

While such laws have been on the books in almost every state for many years, it's as rare as a little girl at Neverland to actually see them enforced. For the past three decades -- ever since the Nixon administration imposed the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit as an "energy conservation" measure -- the emphasis has been on radar-trapping people whose only sin was to have transgressed an arbitrarily set (and artificially low) speed limit. "Speeding" as such usually has nothing to do with safe driving -- but since almost all of us do it, raising huge sums of money via traffic tickets and radar traps is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

Meanwhile, objectively dangerous driving such as refusing to yield -- and creating a road hazard by bottlenecking traffic -- goes unpunished. As a result, left-lane hogging has become much more common. Some drivers even seem to feel entitled to box their fellow motorists in. "I'm doing the speed limit," they'll bray -- oblivious to the annoyance (and hazard) they are creating.

Numerous highway safety studies have found that it is "speed variance" -- a handful of cars moving slower than the normal flow of traffic -- that creates the unsafe conditions that lead to accidents, mainly by causing motorists to "stack up" behind the slow-moving vehicle, brake or swerve suddenly. Motorists who hog the left lane add to the problem by forcing others to attempt to pass on the right -- and in a more general way add to the stress of driving and thus contribute to the road rage.

Prior to the Nixon-era 55-mph edict, the politicization of traffic enforcement (and the cash-rush it generated via trumped up "speeding" tickets) new drivers were always taught the importance of keeping up with the flow of traffic -- and of yielding right to faster-moving traffic.

That has been lost -- common sense and consideration for other drivers having been given the heave-ho in favor of PC cant about "defensive driving" and genuflecting before any speed limit sign -- no matter how ludicrous for the road, conditions or the flow of traffic that's whizzing by.

As a result, our roads have become aggravation avenues chock-a-block with SUVs driven by passive-aggressive cell phone Chatty Cathys and Businessman Bobs too enraptured by their conversation to notice the conga line of vehicles trying desperately to get by.

Though it may be too late, Massachusetts State Rep. Pete Schneider wants to return to the good old days, when the object of traffic enforcement was the promotion of safe, efficient travel -- not revenue collection.

"I'm trying to put a bug under their seat," he says. The "bug" is HB 273 -- a new law that would require drivers to travel at least 50-mph on Interstates. Backing this up would be a return to enforcement of existing laws requiring drivers to yield to faster-moving traffic. Slow-mo drivers could be fined up to $175 -- and even jailed for up to 30 days. Second and third offenses would carry a fine up to $500 -- and 90 days in jail.

It's going to take some time to undo three decades' worth of "speed kills!" propaganda. And it's just one state.

But it's a start.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.