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


Passing, by any other name…

A line from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” is often referenced to imply that labels don’t change what things really are.  Similarly, passing, by any other name, is still passing.

A reader once told me that they use the left freeway lane “when traffic is dense,” even if not passing other vehicles, because otherwise everyone would be backed up in the right-hand lane.  Well, not really, because those who are “backed up” should pull into the left lane to pass the slower vehicles, and return to the right lane when finished.

They further reasoned that sometimes the vehicles on the right must go by the vehicles on the left in such situations.  I countered that the vehicles “going by” on the right are passing left lane vehicles that are not making passes and not returning to the right-hand lane, thwarting the ability of faster vehicles to get in the left lane to pass.

So, whether one labels it “passing,” “going by,” or “overtaking” another vehicle, it means the same thing.  Also, while it’s legal to overtake and pass vehicles in the right-hand lanes of a freeway (except the shoulder), the preferred pass is made to the left when everyone is driving correctly.

Reader G.S. has pondered the semantics of passing terms, writing, “I’ve always considered ‘passing’ what you do when you enter the oncoming traffic lane to pass a slower vehicle, while using another same-direction lane to pass a fellow traveler ‘overtaking.’”

It’s nice to see that G.S. has tried to apply logic to the topic.  But still, I think any officer or court of law would define “overtaking” as “passing.”  In other words, where it would be legal or illegal to “pass,” it would be similarly legal or illegal to “overtake.”

G.S. further clarified, “Often when traveling at higher speeds, one can encounter fellow drivers in the left lane going slower than they should, and often not actively overtaking.”  And then asked, “If you are in the right lane, and the traffic in the left lane is moving more slowly than the traffic in yours, and you advance on the left lane traffic, is this ‘passing?’”

Yes, I’d say that is passing, but as aforementioned, that is legal.  When certain drivers stubbornly and endlessly occupy the left freeway lanes without passing, overtaking, or going by vehicles to their right, faster drivers wishing to proceed have little choice but to pass, overtake, or go by them in right-hand lanes.  Passing to the right may not be ideal, but is often necessary to maintain traffic flow.

Sadly, on some stretches of freeway, the right-hand lane actually becomes the only available passing lane when drivers over-favor the left one.

Reader L.W. has noticed this phenomenon, writing, “I have written you before about lane-sitters, whom I consider the biggest bane of the public highways.  It is the worst on I-5 where I frequently drive.  Experience has taught me that between Portland and Eugene the right lane is the de facto passing lane.”

L.W. has also afforded some thought to reasons for this, noting, “I’m sure many lane-sitters are obstinate self-appointed policers of speed limits.  But I’m convinced many more are simply inattentive and, even more often, fearful of ‘losing their place’ in the passing lane if they move right after passing.”

He has a good point as to why some drivers may stay left, but it’s still not a proper justification for those drivers to be there.  Proper freeway driving requires constant attention and awareness of other vehicles and their various speeds (including one’s own).

Allowing for slower drivers by passing them and accommodating faster drivers by getting out of their way is part proper freeway driving.  To accomplish this, drivers must be vigilant and willing to change lanes as often as needed to deal with varying traffic speeds and passes.

Please try to drive correctly by using the left lane of a freeway for overtaking and passing other vehicles, returning to the right-hand lane when finished.  If everyone did that, we would never have to pass to the right.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at