The Conflicting Dynamics of Lane Courtesy

Editor’s Note: Lane Courtesy, the principle of slower traffic yielding the left lane to faster traffic, needs to become ingrained in our driving ethos.  Many drivers acknowledge the benefits of Lane Courtesy yet they don’t practice it; they never believe they’re the ones holding up traffic. We explored these conflicting dynamics in the 2013 e-newsletter reproduced below.

NMA E-Newsletter #218: Lane Courtesy Redux

Although all states have various forms of the “keep right unless passing” (aka “lane courtesy”) requirement in their statutes, it is rare to hear about the police actually enforcing the law against a driver who camps out in the left lane. Such a story surfaced recently from Maryland where a woman was ticketed for maintaining her position in the inside lane of I-95 while traveling at 63 mph in the 65 mph zone.

There was an interesting tug of war going on between readers of the online story. The posted comments range from a few questioning the saneness of issuing the ticket . . .

“Sorry, but the reason it’s called a speed limit is because you can only go AS fast as 65 mph. There’s nothing about going slower than that speed. The signs say speed limit not speed you need to drive at.”

“There is no such thing as a ‘high speed lane.’ The posted speed limit is the law that applies to all the lanes. The left lane is not some “exception” to it.”

. . . to the vast majority of posters — our visual approximation puts it at about an 8 or 9 to 1 ratio — who display a solid knowledge of the benefits of lane courtesy. Sample contributions:

“It’s a provable fact that staying in the left lane when you are not passing is more dangerous than speeding. Check out facts on the Autobahn. No speed limits in most places, but major fines for riding the left lane. Much lower accident and death rates than US highways.”

“Even if you are driving at or below the speed limit, the left lane is for passing and faster traffic. Let the speeders (and that includes me) run the risk of a ticket. It’s not your job to play Highway Jesus and refuse to move out of the left lane to yield to faster cars.”

“Many states have laws restricting people from driving in the passing lane AT ANY SPEED except to pass. These are good laws, and I wish they were enforced more. As you drive along a freeway and see a jam of cars ahead, you can be absolutely sure that it is caused by an idiot hanging out in the left lane at a slower speed than traffic is flowing.”

To emphasize the first sentence of the last comment, here are pertinent clauses of the Washington State “keep right” statute (§46.61.100), one of the clearer statements in traffic law of the principle of letting faster traffic move unimpeded in the left lane:

Upon all roadways having two or more lanes for traffic moving in the same direction, all vehicles shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for traffic, except (a) when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction, (b) when traveling at a speed greater than the traffic flow, (c) when moving left to allow traffic to merge, or (d) when preparing for a left turn at an intersection, exit, or into a private road or driveway when such left turn is legally permitted.


It is a traffic infraction to drive continuously in the left lane of a multilane roadway when it impedes the flow of other traffic.

What is interesting, but ultimately frustrating, is the reversal of the “lane courtesy appreciation” sentiment out on the highways where it really matters. It only takes one or two left-lane campers to royally screw up traffic flow, but it seems that at least some who write so forcefully online in favor of lane courtesy change their perspectives entirely when rubber meets pavement.

For many years now, the NMA has declared June as “Lane Courtesy Month,” taking the opportunity to highlight nationally the safety benefits of observing the simple “keep right unless passing” rule. Of course, lane courtesy is not a one-month awareness issue; it only works if it is practiced 365 days a year by all drivers.

Improve traffic flow and safety immediately. If traffic is gathering behind you and you can move to a lane further right, do it. Otherwise you are in the wrong lane, regardless of what speed you are traveling at.

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Leave a Comment

4 Responses to “The Conflicting Dynamics of Lane Courtesy”

  1. John Baxter says:

    One of the biggest issues here is the very common practice of under-posting of speed limits. Zealous highway officials may think they are intimidating those who drive at irresponsible speeds, but the most prominent effect is to cause friction between those who respect the law to a fault when it is obviously and provably irrelevant and insist on enforcing a limit that is too low by camping out. While an open left lane would be ideal even were the posting reasonable, since there is always latitude, posting limits according to the science (at around the speed of 85% of drivers) would greatly help the situation.

  2. James C. Walker says:

    It was the federal government that did the most to destroy lane courtesy in 1974 when the counter-productive National Maximum Speed Limit of 55 mph took effect. That speed was FAR below the normal flow speeds on virtually all rural freeways and even most urban ones. Once the improperly low 55 limit took effect, the previous good habits of most drivers to keep right except to pass were forgotten.

  3. Tom Beckett says:

    We’re probably all preaching to the choir here, but one issue I encounter here in Arkansas on a regular basis is where someone is already over the limit-going, say, 75 in a 70 zone, and complains about people riding up behind him wanting to pass. There’s a man who writes a column in the local paper here who spent a whole column just on that. I wrote in(and was published) citing the applicable statute, noting that it did not say anything about speed per se, just that a driver had to yield to faster traffic. He did not comment in any future columns, and I never heard any more about it. I’m sure there are many others who fall into the same “I’m already at 7 over the limit, the idiot behind me can just deal with it” school, and don’t realize, or don’t care that they are causing a traffic flow issue.

    While I’m at it, because I see this all too often, there’s a special place in hell for the people who are in the left lane, talking away on their phones, at 10 below the speed limit.

    The German Autobahns were mentioned in the piece above. One thing that should not be considered aggressive driving here, and that they do in Europe, is flashing your headlights at a driver ahead of you who is blocking the left lane. The highway safety types don’t like when I say that-a lot of them are in favor of Click and Clack’s “National 35 MPH Speed Limit” anyway-but it might get the message across to at least some of them.

  4. Nitin kibe says:

    Good points. I routinely find the rightmost lane, on 6 + lane interstates, the emptiest, as traffic on the highway avoids or yields to traffic entering. In the UK, i saw the opposite, with entering traffic stopped, waiting for a gap to enter, even though the signs say yield.