Legislators eye making passing lanes mandatory

Road hogs block highways

Nevada’s current law does not actually define when cars should stay out of the passing lane.

Nevada’s current law does not actually define when cars should stay out of the passing lane.

PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS

“I came across Nevada on 50,” Gabriel—he declined to give a last name—said at the Reno Arch, where he was getting his picture taken. “There was this one stretch, this side of Fallon, where I just couldn’t get through. There were people in every lane and traffic was backing up behind them.”

He had reacted to being asked what he thought of passing lanes. He’s visiting from Kansas, and like many people who have taken drivers ed, has always considered it common courtesy to stay out of the left lane unless he is actually passing.

What if there are more than two lanes?

“Three, four—the left lane is still the passing lane,” he said. “I stay out of it unless I am passing.”

In fact, in his home state, according to the Lawrence Journal World, “On highways with three lanes of traffic—such as the Kansas Turnpike between Lawrence and Topeka—the law requires that motorists drive in the right or middle lanes and use only the left lane to pass.”

There are three measures—Assembly Bills 208, 329 and 334—in the Nevada Legislature to make the law covering a passing lane more explicit and more workable.

Nevada actually has such a law, but its wording is vague, and it doesn’t clearly tell drivers to stay out of the passing lane. Nevada Revised Statute 484B.627 reads:

“Duties of driver driving motor vehicle at speed so slow as to impede forward movement of traffic; prohibition against stopping vehicle on roadway so as to impede or block normal and reasonable movement of traffic; exception. 1. If any driver drives a motor vehicle at a speed so slow as to impede the forward movement of traffic proceeding immediately behind the driver, the driver shall: (a) If the highway has one lane for traveling in each direction and the width of the paved portion permits, drive to the extreme right side of the highway and, if applicable, comply with the provisions of NRS 484B.630 [which prescribes when slow vehicles must turn off the road]; (b) If the highway has two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic traveling in the direction in which the driver is traveling, drive in the extreme right-hand lane except when necessary to pass other slowly moving vehicles; or (c) If the highway is a controlled-access highway, use alternate routes whenever possible. 2. A person shall not bring a vehicle to a complete stop upon a roadway so as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic unless the stop is necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law.”

Bad signs

On the strength of this law, Nevada once had signs alongside some highways reading, “Slower traffic keep right.” But that made it a judgment call for drivers to decide for themselves whether they were traveling slowly or not. The law is permissive instead of mandatory. It also means that a driver can never know what it takes to be stopped by police for improperly using the passing lane.

And most of the signs have disappeared.

In states with mandatory passing lane laws, the signs read, “Keep right except to pass.” That flat requirement tends to keep highways more clear.

For many years, a number of states left it up to drivers to be courteous and keep right. But that has not worked well, and some states like Maryland and Oregon have been looking at getting tougher.

In Gabriel’s case, when he drove from Fallon to Fernley and found his way blocked, the problem may have been some amateur traffic cops. Some drivers are known to get into the passing lane and then drive at a speed that keeps them abreast of a vehicle in the right lane, thus holding all drivers down to lower speed. Of course, if someone in the backed-up traffic is trying to deal with an emergency, it can create very dangerous problems. Imagine if someone was rushing a passenger to a hospital. It was against that eventuality that Oregon recently passed a new passing lane law. It requires all drivers to stay in the right lane unless they are passing.

“In other words: Self-anointed traffic monitors need to quit squatting in the passing lane on highways, deliberately creating a rolling traffic jam of impatient drivers behind them,” editorialized the Eugene Register Guard. “Senate Bill 532 would strongly encourage this by making such behavior a Class D motor vehicle violation, with a maximum fine of $250.”

Some drivers believe that if they are doing the speed limit, it’s OK for them to drive in the passing lane when not passing. But some states act to stop that practice. The Colorado State Patrol distributes material that says “it is the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement officers to initiate appropriate enforcement action. … By mitigating traffic flow conflicts caused by slower drivers, bouts of aggressive driving would likely be reduced. The Patrol believes the Left Lane Law achieves the appropriate balance between public safety and optimizing traffic flow on Colorado highways.”

YouTube has a video titled “Why you shouldn’t drive slowly in the left lane” that is recommended by car insurance salespeople.