By Stewart Price, NMA Programs Officer
Until I started working here at the NMA, I thought these two questions are the same. As the French would say, “C’est la meme chose.” (Translation: “It’s the same thing.”) But now, I’m not so sure.
The first question is, are you a safe driver? This gets at acting in the safety and interests of other drivers (signals or no signals, signs or no signs). The second question is, are you a compliant driver? This gets at to what degree you obey all of the “rules of the road.” Does being a compliant driver make you inherently a safe driver? If we conducted random interviews, I bet 99 percent would say yes.
But is there a difference?
The goal of being a safe driver, I think, is to be prudently cautious, aware of surroundings, and able to adjust quickly to situations (like a ball that rolls into the street). The (US) National Safety Council coined the term, “defensive driving,” and ever since it’s been burned into everyone’s consciousness.
The goal then, of the compliant driver is to faithfully comply with all traffic laws. The most extreme version is the person who drives one mile per hour under the posted speed limit. They are easy to spot. They drive as if they want to mitigate all foreseeable risks. Or maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with risk reduction; the goal might be to simply avoid traffic violations. The point is, that they are robotically legalistic in their driving behavior.
You may be thinking, “Stew, I think you’re splitting hairs. Even if you’re right, what does it really matter?” First, if you’ve seen my photo, you know I have few hairs to split. Second, I think it does matter. And it’s not a trivial issue.
Let me explain.
I recently watched this YouTube video of a police officer in action.
This highway patrolman from Colorado (a state which ranks #9 nationally in issuing speeding tickets) instructs us, albeit arrogantly, on the “left lane law.” In simple terms, if two lanes are going in the same direction (two-lane highways, interstates, etc.) and the speed limit is 65 mph or higher, the left-lane law states that the left lane is reserved for passing only. Yes, there are some caveats. As an example, you don’t have to change lanes if it’s congested or unsafe to do so, and it’s not enforceable if the speed limit is less than 65 mph. But the bottom line is that in certain states, hogging the left lane is not a courtesy issue; it’s a traffic violation.
In this five-minute video, you will hear several interesting scenarios, some described humorously. However, note how many times the officer emphatically states, “Don’t speed.” If you follow this particular officer’s command and apply it to the “left-lane law,” I-80 might be a single-lane caravan. No one would ever travel in the left lane! (Or you could have two lanes driving at exactly the speed limit.)
I found an interesting post under the video:
“A Colorado State Trooper once gave me a ticket when I was flashing my lights behind an old, beat-up van with no outside side mirrors, and driving about 10-15 mph under the speed limit. When he stopped me, I said I was doing the right thing and the slow driver in the passing lane is the one who should get the ticket. He said there is no law that says you can’t drive slow in the left lane. I said there are signs posted that say, “slower traffic move right.” He said those are suggestions, not laws. It cost me $250 and a lecture about taking more pride in my driving.”
So, when it comes to left lane driving, it seems there are two lanes of behavior:
Be a safe driver. Use discernment. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the safe thing to do. It’s also an act of respect for others.
Be a compliant driver. Follow the law to a “T.” Example: Use the left lane to pass, but only if the person you are passing is traveling at least five to six miles per hour below the speed limit. This will allow you to pass at a reasonable speed without exceeding the speed limit.
It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? How are we, as drivers, supposed to act safely and be compliant at the same time when faced with contradictory objectives?
Which lane of behavior will you choose?
I hope it’s that of the safe driver. May common sense prevail.