Make it quick, left-lane users

Md. con­sid­ers a fine for driv­ers who linger in pass­ing zones

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY KATHER­INE SHAVER kather­ine.shaver@wash­post.com

Driv­ers who hog the left lane soon could face fines up to $250 in Mary­land un­der a bill de­signed to ease bot­tle­necks and re­duce road rage by mak­ing it eas­ier for mo­torists to get around slower ve­hi­cles.

The bill, which has passed the House and is pend­ing in the Se­nate, would put Mary­land among a grow­ing num­ber of states crack­ing down on driv­ers who seem to defy a ba­sic les­son of high school driver’s ed­u­ca­tion: Use the left lane to pass, then move back to the right. Vir­ginia law­mak­ers re­cently added a new manda­tory min­i­mum fine to their long-stand­ing law re­quir­ing mo­torists to move right after pass­ing.

The push comes as many states have in­creased their high­way speed lim­its and law­mak­ers say their time-starved con­stituents are plead­ing for ways to make traf­fic move faster.

The bill’s spon­sor, Del. Wil­liam G. Folden (R-Fred­er­ick), said he sees the prob­lem rou­tinely on the Cap­i­tal Belt­way, In­ter­state 270 and other ma­jor roads.

“Look at this guy!” Folden ex­claimed re­cently dur­ing a phone call from Route 100 in Howard County, as he drove home from the An­napo­lis state­house dur­ing the evening rush.

“There are nine cars be­hind this one pickup truck in the left lane,” Folden re­ported, sound­ing ex­as­per­ated. “The speed limit is 55, and he’s prob­a­bly go­ing 52 or 53 — in the left lane!”

Folden, a po­lice of­fi­cer who has spe­cial­ized in traf­fic en­force­ment, said left-lane dawdlers are a haz­ard be­cause they re­quire oth­ers to pass on the right, in a driver’s blind spot. They also cause more ag­gres­sive driv­ing, he said, as peo­ple stuck be­hind them close in on their bumpers or dart in and out of other lanes to get around them. Leav­ing the left lane more open also would help po­lice and emer­gency re­spon­ders reach crashes, he said.

But some traf­fic safety ad­vo­cates say they’ve seen no ev­i­dence show­ing that such laws help pre­vent road rage or make roads safer. In fact, they say, they worry such laws could end up en­cour­ag­ing dan­ger­ous speed­ing.

“My con­cern is this bill says the left lane is the fast lane and, un­less you’re go­ing fast, don’t use it,” said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-At­lantic.

Townsend said he knows many mo­torists will ob­ject, but he doesn’t think the left lane needs a new law. Slower driv­ers should move to the right as a cour­tesy, he said. But he said peo­ple driv­ing the speed limit in the left lane shouldn’t get a ticket sim­ply be­cause they didn’t make way for oth­ers who want to drive above the limit. He noted that about one-third of all fa­tal traf­fic crashes in the United States in­volve speed­ing, about the same num­ber as drunken driv­ing.

“The per­son be­hind [the slower driver] is be­ing un­safe and boor­ish” if they’re try­ing to get them out of the way, Townsend said. “We want to ticket the per­son who’s be­ing ag­gres­sive. That’s the per­son in­cit­ing road rage . . . I just think we’d be tick­et­ing the wrong peo­ple.”

Jonathan Ad­kins, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Gov­er­nors High­way Safety As­so­ci­a­tion, said he hasn’t seen any data show­ing that left-lane laws make roads safer. He said he’s con­cerned that laws pro­tect­ing the fast lane are be­com­ing more com­mon as many states also have in­creased their high­way speed lim­its, in­clud­ing some to as high as 85 mph.

With the ad­di­tional 5 mph to 10 mph for the “speed cush­ion” that mo­torists know po­lice typ­i­cally al­low be­fore they is­sue a ticket, he said, “The speeds are get­ting re­ally high.”

“It’s clear that ev­ery­one is in a rush, and peo­ple want to go faster and faster,” Ad­kins said. “Any­thing that makes that eas­ier tends to get sup­ported. Speed in gen­eral is a ne­glected high­way safety is­sue.”

Folden said most ve­hi­cles on high­ways that aren’t choked with traf­fic travel faster than the posted speed limit and that his bill doesn’t pro­tect the left lane for ex­ces­sive speed­ers.

“Some­one said, ‘You’re just en­cour­ag­ing very ag­gres­sive males to tail­gate old ladies,’ ” he said. “No. I’m just en­cour­ag­ing more cour­te­ous driv­ing so peo­ple va­cate the left lane.”

Folden said about 40 states have laws that spec­ify the left lane for pass­ing or faster traf­fic. Some re­strict it only to pass­ing while oth­ers re­quire mo­torists to move to the right if they’re block­ing traf­fic. Mary­land law pro­hibits driv­ers from im­ped­ing “the nor­mal and rea­son­able move­ment of traf­fic” by driv­ing too slowly, but it’s not spe­cific to the left lane. Dis­trict law re­quires mo­torists to pass on the left in most sit­u­a­tions but does not limit the left lane to pass­ing, ac­cord­ing to D.C. po­lice.

Folden’s bill would ap­ply to roads that have three or more lanes in one di­rec­tion and a posted speed limit of 55 mph or higher. That would cover about 1,051 miles of roads, in­clud­ing the Cap­i­tal Belt­way, In­ter­state 95, I-270 and num­bered state roads such as U.S. Route 50 and U.S. Route 301, ac­cord­ing to the Mary­land State High­way Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

It would not ap­ply to mo­torists mak­ing a left turn or us­ing a left exit or left HOV lane. To keep rush-hour traf­fic flow­ing, it also wouldn’t ap­ply when traf­fic bogs down by 10 mph or more be­low the posted speed limit. The fine would be $75 for a first of­fense, $150 for a sec­ond of­fense and $250 for the third or more.

Capt. Tom Di­done, com­man­der of the Mont­gomery County po­lice traf­fic divi­sion, tes­ti­fied in fa­vor of the bill, say­ing it would help traf­fic flow more ef­fi­ciently and safely by keep­ing it at a more con­sis­tent speed. Mo­torists who drive sig­nif­i­cantly faster or slower than the flow of traf­fic cre­ate more po­ten­tial for a crash, he said. That in­cludes mo­torists who think they’re help­ing to keep a high­way at a safe speed by driv­ing the speed limit in the left lane.

“Peo­ple think they’re caus­ing peo­ple to slow down,” Di­done said, “but they’re go­ing to cause a crash.”

In Vir­ginia, law­mak­ers re­cently added a manda­tory min­i­mum fine of $250 to the state law re­quir­ing mo­torists to stay to the right ex­cept when pass­ing. The law cur­rently has a max­i­mum fine of $250.

Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) re­duced that re­cently added manda­tory min­i­mum to $100, and the House ap­proved it. The Se­nate will vote on the change April 5, when law­mak­ers re­con­vene to con­sider the gov­er­nor’s amend­ments and ve­toes.

Dana Schrad, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Vir­ginia As­so­ci­a­tion of Chiefs of Po­lice, said the or­ga­ni­za­tion is “a lit­tle bit con­cerned” that some mo­torists could mis­in­ter­pret the law as per­mis­sion to speed in the left lane. She noted that it can be dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to move to the right when traf­fic is heavy.

“It’s not meant to give ad­van­tage to peo­ple who just want to drive ex­ces­sively faster than you are,” Schrad said. “We don’t want the wrong mes­sage to go out to driv­ers who rou­tinely break the speed limit, that they can push peo­ple out of their way.”

Sen. Scott Surov­ell (D-Fair­fax), who spon­sored the re­cent Vir­ginia leg­is­la­tion, said he was in­spired by his trav­els to Ger­many, Italy and other coun­tries where mo­torists who linger in the left lane re­ceive loud honks and flash­ing lights from ap­proach­ing driv­ers.

The feed­back from mo­torists, he said, has been “over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive.”

“It’s an is­sue any­one who com­mutes ev­ery day ex­pe­ri­ences,” Surov­ell said. “It’s ex­tremely frus­trat­ing for any­body to feel bot­tled up be­cause some­one is be­ing self­ish and slow­ing things down for ev­ery­one.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Driv­ers head south on In­ter­state 95 in Bal­ti­more last week. Mary­land law­mak­ers are weigh­ing a pro­posal that would set fines for mo­torists who re­main in the left lane in­stead of stay­ing to the right.

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