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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


The passing lane

When referencing the lane to the left of and adjacent to the right hand freeway lane, “passing lane” would be preferable to “left lane.”  That designation better defines its primary purpose:  to accommodate vehicles overtaking slower vehicles.

An email from reader D.P. exemplifies potential confusion on this issue.  I’ve had drivers tell me that they have a right to the left freeway lane if they are “doing the speed limit.”  I’m not certain whether D.P. uses that justification, but his inquiry implies it.

He wrote, “I went to court one time on a speeding ticket.  The judge took time to explain that on the freeway, the legal speed is the posted speed.  Under no circumstances are we allowed to exceed the posted speed on the freeway.  She said that 70 means 70 and an officer if he so desired could give us a citation for 72.”

With that background stated, he asked, “IF WE ARE ALL DOING SPEED LIMIT ON THE FREEWAY DO I have to move out of the left lane if someone is pushing up behind me at a speed exceeding the posted speed??? If so Why?”

If you are doing the speed limit AND overtaking a vehicle in the right hand lane, you don’t have to move out of the left lane.  If a following vehicle wishes to pass you, they must wait for your legal pass (at the speed limit or above) to be completed.  When your pass is completed, you must legally return to the right hand lane regardless of your speed.

If, however, a driver is stubbornly occupying the left lane simply because he or she is doing the speed limit with no other qualifying reason, they are in violation of the law. The law in Washington (and every state I’ve checked) allows use of the left lane for passing vehicles on one’s right, which is the main justification for being there on the freeway.  The law also allows left lane use if you are about to turn left (unlikely on most freeways), moving left to allow a merge from the right, or moving left to avoid an object.

When another driver chooses to exceed the limit, it is not an excuse to occupy the left lane to thwart their speed.  Speed enforcement is the role of the legitimate police, not self-appointed lane blockers.

Again, you don’t have to move out of the left lane strictly for a speeder (unless it’s an emergency vehicle with flashing lights).  But if you are not in that lane for the essential reasons allowing it (passing a vehicle in the right lane or allowing a merge from the right, et cetera), then you are violating the law and unnecessarily blocking the left lane for speeders and emergency vehicles.

Additionally, out of courtesy, I still speed up a couple of miles per hour even if I’m doing the speed limit when faster drivers behind me are pressing during my pass.

Though an officer can theoretically write a ticket for 2 m.p.h. over the limit, I’m unaware of an example of that.  I’ve occasionally passed through radar speed “traps” throughout the country going 2 over the limit, any never drawn any notice from attending officers.  Such tickets would not likely hold up in court for a number of reasons, including variances in vehicle speedometer calibration.

If that lecturing judge believes her speed never rises a couple of miles over the limit, I suspect she is deluded.

Two weeks back, some other drivers and I called out those who return to the right hand lane sooner than needed after a pass, effectively blasting vehicles they’ve passed with debris.

Reader K.J. reported a related foul-up, writing, “I have noticed the numerous people who travel off the roadway, running to the right of the white strip, stirring up dirt and sand all the way down the road, for miles and miles. You will notice that these people generally drive a pickup or large truck.”

I can’t really explain this one.  K.J. surmised that it could be borne of “outright stupidity.”  It’s always fun to guess why certain drivers drive the way they do!

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at