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


Reexamining lane use

The emailed comments and questions regarding lane use are seemingly endless, so let’s reexamine the topic.

Reader R.H. commented, “I would like to broaden the conversation with regard to your recent article on the use of the inside lane when driving on freeways.  The law is quite straightforward when it comes to the scenario you dealt with, that the inside lane is actually designated as a passing lane, though many people seem ignorant of that fact.  I once saw a driver on Interstate 90 block a state patrolman with lights flashing for nearly 5 minutes before she got a clue and moved to the right!”

I sometimes ride with WSP officers, and during those rides I’ve often seen drivers (both male and female) who block the left lane even when the cruiser lights are ablaze behind them.  One of the reasons that the law requires drivers to return to the right-hand lane after making a pass in the left one is to keep the left lane available for emergency vehicles.  It’s a dangerous situation when an officer, going 100 mph, has to swerve around a blocking vehicle that may return to the right lane at that inopportune moment.

Then R.H. questioned, “But, in my travels on I-90, 405 in the Seattle area, I-5 and other limited access roadways in Washington, there are numerous stretches where there are not two, but three and even four lanes of travel in the same direction.  Laws that regulate the use of carpool lanes are obvious, but what about the remaining lanes of travel, where there are three lanes to the right of the carpool lane?  Often the outer lane becomes an exit only lane in densely populated areas, so the simple practice of staying to the right doesn’t apply then.  Are there regulations that govern how drivers should perform in these often congested and confusing locations?”

The intent of the basic, governing “stay right except to pass” rule still applies when there are two, three, five, seven or more lanes provided for vehicles in the same direction of travel.  If drivers are not overtaking and passing other vehicles, they should make their ways back to the right hand lanes.  When you finish passing a vehicle in the far left lane, move to the next lane to the right; if you are not passing vehicles there, move right again, et cetera.  While drivers should always move back toward the right lanes when they are not overtaking other vehicles, the need to clear the left-most lane (unless it is HOV, then the next one to the right) is of highest importance, since that's where emergency vehicles are expected to be.

As R.H. states, the far right lane becomes mainly an exit lane through areas of dense traffic, but that occurs essentially because the exiting vehicles are slowing down, and continuing traffic is moving left to go by them, so typical lane-use principles are still at play.  In other words, pass-through traffic is legally out of the right-most lane because they are generally passing vehicles that are there.

If no one is slowing and exiting, that “exit” lane can still accommodate through traffic going the speed limit, though this rarely happens in dense metro regions.  Such areas contain entrance ramps to the freeway as well as exits, so pass-through traffic is often moving left to allow entrances as well.  When there are enough exits and entrances, it does effectively eliminate the far right lane for continuous-speed traffic, but mainly because that traffic is using the left lane(s) to pass by slower enterers and exiters.

Of course, gray areas occur during gridlock.  When all freeway lanes are virtually clogged during stop-and-go traffic jams, different lanes move ahead unpredictably, and remaining in a given lane is usually best even though vehicles in the right lanes may pass vehicles in the left lanes and vice-versa.  Keeping track of who is passing whom in traffic that is sitting still more than it is moving is not possible; vehicles need to be moving and properly spaced out for the normal lane-use rules to apply.

But when traffic IS moving, please observe those rules!

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at precisiondriving@spokesman.