WASHINGTON (Stateline.org/TNS) - Maybe you’re a bit of a lead-foot. Maybe you don’t like driving behind trucks. Or maybe you just really like the view from the left lane. Well, an increasing number of states have a message for you: Get over. Or pay up.
Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia are racing to become the latest in a wave of states that have imposed higher fines and more restrictions on driving in the left lane of multilane highways. The crackdown is an attempt to enforce what legislators say drivers should already know: the far left lane of a highway is for passing, and only passing.
Since 2013, at least five other states — Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey and Tennessee — have also stiffened penalties for “slowpoke” driving or “left-lane camping.” While all states require slow vehicles to keep right, they do not all specifically require drivers to get out of the left lane after overtaking another motorist or set penalties for failing to do so.
“Left-lane cruisers, besides being dangerously oblivious to the other drivers around them, are annoying …..,” said Kaye Kory, the Democratic Virginia state delegate who co-sponsored the legislation in her state.
Her bill, written to take effect during summer vacation traffic in July, was passed by the House with a $250 fine for left-lane motorists driving slower “than the normal speed of traffic” and for drivers staying in the left lane when they are not passing another vehicle. But Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe wanted the fine reduced to $100, which Kory agreed to.
In Oregon, the bill now making its way through the Legislature would impose a $250 fine for driving in the left lane except when passing.
“People who hog the left lane lead to road rage and frustration, tailgating, passing on the right,” said Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, a Democrat who previously championed Oregon’s ban on using hand-held cellphones while driving. “All of these are unsafe behaviors.”
Slowpoke driving bills are popular with constituents and attract media attention.
“I can’t tell you how many people come up to me from all walks of life, including ‘gun nuts’ who are just totally opposed to everything I’m doing on guns and say, ‘I hate everything you’re doing on guns but I love your left-lane bill,’” Burdick said.
But the measures aren’t always popular enough to become law. Since 2015, left-lane bills have been proposed in Mississippi, North Carolina and Ohio without winning approval. Questions remain about whether they really work to improve highway safety.
Burdick said stricter left-lane laws are needed in part because traffic fatalities are on the rise. Traffic fatalities have increased sharply: in 2015, traffic deaths rose by 7.2 percent over the year before, the largest jump in 50 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic deaths rose eight percent in the first nine months of 2016 over the first nine months of 2015, the agency estimates.
Traffic safety experts say there’s no specific research on the danger of left-lane driving. Speed and distracted driving, by contrast, are clearly identified threats to safety.
“It is not something that comes to the top of the list when it comes to traffic safety concerns,” said Andrea Bill, traffic safety engineer research program manager at the University of Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory.
“I have not seen any research that says that hogging the left lane is a major safety issue,” said Charles Farmer, vice president of research and statistical services at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by the auto insurance industry. “We definitely know that speeding is a major safety issue. The evidence is overwhelming on that.”
States have been raising speed limits in recent years. The national 55 mph speed limit, enacted in 1973 during a fuel crisis, was officially repealed in 1995, by which time many states had already raised the speed limit to 65 mph.
Now, Hawaii and Washington, D.C., are the only places where the maximum speed limit is less than 65 mph. Eleven states still have a top speed limit of 65 mph, and 38 states have higher speed limits on some roads. A handful of Western states have an 80 mph limit. Texas has an 85 mph limit.
Legislators and police say that the danger of left-lane lingering is obvious. In Oregon, for instance, state police list “lane usage” as one of five main factors leading to serious injuries and fatal crashes. The others are speed, impaired driving, distracted driving and “occupant safety,” for example wearing seat belts.
Proponents of left-lane laws argue that slowpoke drivers cause unnecessary lane changing as faster traffic weaves around to pass on the right.
But the underlying problem is still speed, Farmer said. “Lane changing is a problem if you’re going too fast,” he said. “At normal speeds, and if you’re careful and you’re looking out, it’s not a problem. That’s why we have multilane highways.”
Regardless of whether it is dangerous, left-lane driving impedes the smooth flow of traffic — and for commuters on often overcrowded roads, that is infuriating. Being a “left lane hog,” as Burdick calls it, has been among the top five most annoying driver behaviors for two years, according to a survey commissioned by the travel booking site Expedia.
A left-lane law is a “relatively easy way” of curbing road rage, said Kory, the Virginia state delegate.
“Road rage is a very real phenomenon that is exacerbated by the increasing congestion on our major roads and highways,” she said. “Curbing left-lane cruising is a step towards smoothing the flow of traffic and reducing likely instances of road rage.”