Don’t be a slowpoke in the left lane


I have been doing a lot of long-distance driving recently and once again encountered an issue that I have ranted about in the past and that is those drivers who camp out in the left lane permanently. And the people doing this cross all ages and both genders. So I was glad to see NPR doing a story on it with the title Don’t Be A Slowpoke: Why Left Lane Driving Causes Traffic.


The story interviewed science writer Joseph Stromberg who explained why such drivers are not merely annoying but also increase the ricks of accidents.

When you’re traveling on the highway, the moment at which you’re most at risk of getting into a crash is when you’re changing lanes. And when you have people going slow in the left lane, as well as the right lane, then people who want to move faster kind of have to zigzag back and forth. They have to change lanes looking over both different shoulders, and it just increases the amount of possible accident scenarios that can happen.

It is really annoying to be stuck behind two cars in adjacent lanes that are each traveling at roughly the same speed. It causes other drivers who want to pass them quite a bit of frustration and they try to zip in and out of small gaps in the adjacent lanes in order to get past. When I notice an impatient driver in such a situation, I drop back because I know that s/he is going to try and suddenly cut into my lane in an effort to pass the car in front.

The fact that you are driving at the speed limit is no excuse.

One of the best predictors of an accident isn’t necessarily whether someone’s speeding or not, but the difference between the average speed of traffic surrounding them and how fast they’re going. And it turns out that going 5 miles per hour slower than the surrounding speed of traffic puts you at a greater risk of accident than going 5 miles per hour faster.

Such drivers also increase the risk of causing traffic jams.

There is, you know, strong research showing that just a small amount of congestion can ripple outwards and make a really big traffic jam. And a lot of times that’s because of just a few cars that are going slower than the speed limit or just at it and blocking up both lanes. And that causes, you know, layers and layers of people trying to pass just backed up behind them. And so it’s annoying, but it also really can cause legitimate congestion.

So knock it off, people. You are probably avoiding the slow lane so that you do not have to deal with cars entering the highway from an on-ramp, but that it not enough of a reason to annoy everyone else.

On that last point, I notice that almost every driver in the right lane now considerately tries to move over to allow people to enter the highway. It used not to be the case but this may be one of those things that people have seen others do and realized it is a good thing. So good driving habits can become universal by example. Let’s hope it happens for the slowpokes in the left lane too.

Comments

  1. deepak shetty says

    And it turns out that going 5 miles per hour slower than the surrounding speed of traffic puts you at a greater risk of accident than going 5 miles per hour faster.

    Which however does not fly with the officer issuing you a ticket. (I was just matching everyones speed officer!)
    Most of the people in the lanes are almost always going at 5 miles more than the speed limit , and matching each other, so the five miles faster than that puts you at risk of meeting an officer who is trying to meet his quotas.
    My preferred option is to use profanities (within the safe confines of the car) using multiple languages.

  2. kyoseki says

    Californians love to sit in the left hand lane whilst pacing (matching the speed of) traffic in the lane to the right of them. Every single time you run into giant gobs of traffic, it’s invariably caused by two muppets in the 1 & 2 lanes traveling at the EXACT same speed.

    Combine that with the “California swerve” where the idiot in the left hand lane suddenly realizes they need to exit and swerve across all 4 lanes of traffic in one move and you have a recipe for disaster.

    Only last week I was nearly in a collision as I tried to get around a blockage caused by (what else?) a Prius dawdling along in the left hand lane, as I tried to pass in the number 3 lane (passing on the right is legal in California) I was nearly hit by the very same Prius suddenly trying to transition from the far left lane to the far right lane in one move (and cutting through the braking distance of two cars to my left to do it).

    … which brings me to another bugbear, the two second rule – if you actually leave two seconds between yourself and the car in front, at least 8 other cars will try to occupy that space, in California anyway.

  3. Vivec says

    What is described @1 is a serious problem where I live – the majority of roads are long winding 2-lane roads that run perpendicular to the cliffs for miles.

    Because it’s so long and relatively flat, cops love to set up speed traps behind signs or driveways, but people also love to drive really fast because there’s a long distance between anything of note and few alternate paths.

    You’re basically forced to speed to avoid being a road hazard, and you just have to hope that you’re not the one the cop decides to pull over.

  4. Siobhan says

    At the same time, I’ve had instances where somebody is dawdling well below the speed limit in the right hand lane, so I exceed the speed limit passing them in the left… where I am tailgated by a pick up truck even though I’m speeding, who then cuts me off when I try to change lanes back into the right hand lane to return to the speed limit. This was pretty much a daily occurrence when I still had a car.

    I’ll just drop a reminder that inner city roads do not have a “fast lane” the way highways do. You wouldn’t know judging by the way rednecks in this province drive.

  5. says

    That is one reason I hate driving through Indiana. They have different speed limits for cars and trucks. That means that every time a truck goes to pass another truck, everything backs up for quite a ways. For most states, the speed limits are the same and yes, trucks passing other trucks can sometimes cause problems, but it doesn’t seem to be the constant trouble it is in Indiana.

    Also, that libertarian paradise doesn’t seem to believe in 3 lanes going in each direction, even with they need it. They have just in the past few years gone to 3 lanes in a few places around Indianapolis, but that’s about it. Contrast that with Ohio which has I-71 having 3 lanes all the way from Cleveland to Cincinnati. And a very large percentage of I-70 also has 3 lanes.

  6. Johnny Vector says

    Also, somewhat loosely related, the turn signal is not actually intended as a way of indicating that yes, you did mean to execute that lane change you just finished. Clipping the signal lever with your left hand as you turn the wheel is not helpful.

  7. Mano Singham says

    kyoseki @#2,

    You mentioned in passing that it is legal in CA to pass on the right. Actually, I think it is legal everywhere as long as we are talking about at least two lanes going in the same direction. I think the rule applies when passing on the right means going on the shoulder.

  8. Mano Singham says

    kyoseki @#2,

    You mentioned in passing that it is legal in CA to pass on the right. Actually, I think (but am not certain) that it is legal everywhere as long as we are talking about at least two lanes going in the same direction. I think the rule forbidding it applies when passing on the right means going on the shoulder.

  9. Karen Locke says

    I live in Silicon Valley and used to read the San Jose Mercury News. Their commute/driving columnist (or one of his regular readers) coined the expression “road boulder” to refer to people who insist on traveling at an inappropriately low speed for the lane that they’re in. It is so appropriate!

    I have extended the definition to refer to people driving slowly on mountain roads who won’t pull into turnouts for the traffic backed up behind them. This is a real pet peeve of mine, especially since when I dawdle on a mountain road (because the roadcut geology just needs to be looked at) I pull over for folks behind me. I’ve noticed that most people with, say, RVs and such will pull over. But the folks with little, underpowered cars are afraid that if they do, they’ll never get up the hill, I guess. Okay, I sort of understand that. Worst of all are the People Who Are Scared Of Curves. They will creep up miles of curvy mountain road with a dozen cars on their tail, refusing all turnouts, and then in a straight section speed up so that they’re difficult to pass. Grrrr.

  10. Lofty says

    In Australia it’s actually illegal to travel continuously in the lane closest to the center line if the other lane/s are clear, on roads with a limit of 50mph or more. Doesn’t stop people doing it though, just occasionally some of them get fined. As we, like in Britain, drive on the left, large “KEEP LEFT UNLESS OVERTAKING” signs are regularly ignored by dumb drivers.

  11. deepak shetty says

    @kyoseki

    if you actually leave two seconds between yourself and the car in front, at least 8 other cars will try to occupy that space, in California anyway.

    Same peeve. I leave a good gap and will usually allow anyone who shows an indicator to pass (it also seems a California trait for folks to speed up as soon as they see people trying to change lanes) – But people cut so rashly that it has become safer to not leave a gap(I-80 near Berkeley)

  12. kyoseki says

    You mentioned in passing that it is legal in CA to pass on the right. Actually, I think (but am not certain) that it is legal everywhere as long as we are talking about at least two lanes going in the same direction

    Ah, I seem to recall reading that it varied by state and I also recall a few people expressing surprise that it was a common thing here, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Same peeve. I leave a good gap and will usually allow anyone who shows an indicator to pass (it also seems a California trait for folks to speed up as soon as they see people trying to change lanes) – But people cut so rashly that it has become safer to not leave a gap(I-80 near Berkeley)

    Yeah, 101 through Marin, here (Lexuses, Lexuses EVERYWHERE!), gotta love that “I don’t want to drive fast, but I’ll be damned if I’m letting you get around me!” attitude.

    I tend to leave a bit more of a gap than other drivers (especially if I can’t see through the vehicle in front of me), but not enough of a gap that people (generally) try to stuff themselves into it… and if someone comes flying up behind me, I’ll invariably get out of the way, or at least, act predictably so they can go around me, though normally if the lane to the right of me is empty, I’ll be in it.

  13. fentex says

    My biggest peeve is people who drive sloowly and very very carefully and who blithely drive straight through red lights and stop signs because the only thing they worry about is speed.

  14. Blarg says

    Mano, this is probably #2 on my “problems with motorists” list. Ohio has “Keep right except to pass” signs every dozen miles or so on all Federal and many of the larger State highways, and posted at all of them as you come across from another state. I have never heard of it being enforced.

    #1 on my list is merging onto roadways unsafely. This can be not obeying the yield (somewhat negated when it is possible (and a driver is willing} to change lanes in the merging-to roadway) but mostly it is merging at unsafe speeds. I get frustrated by drivers merging into highways at 38 mph with traffic coming up behind them at 70 mph. This isn’t just unsafe for the merging driver and the traffic they now in front of. Usually the people most at risk at those unfortunate enough to be second or third back in the group trying to merge, in a similar way as the ripple effect mentioned in the OP.

  15. says

    I was stuck in some Washington, DC, traffic with a friend of mine, who is a mathematician. Specifically, a topologist (if that matters) After a while he looks around and says “there are 4 lanes here. if everyone just sped up to 50, in unison, we’d be able to fit everyone through” I was flabbergasted and said something about “turbulence” and then we spent a few happy hours trying to figure out whether traffic exhibits turbulence, or what.

    My biggest peeve is when someone sees a speed trap, slams on their brakes, and the person texting behind them hits them, and the road gets closed for a while. People hanging in the left lane don’t bother me that much. The worst thing out here is when a semi decides to pass another on an uphill and you’ve got 2 semis side-by-side for 2 miles while they try to negotiate it. Those guys are scary.

  16. jaxkayaker says

    The left lane slowpokes appear to me to be the #1 cause of traffic backups in the bay area. I-80 is rife with these idiots.

  17. kyoseki says

    Shout out to the Audi I followed over the Golden Gate bridge tonight who was determined to occupy the left hand lane, but wasn’t sure how wide his car was, so drove with two feet of his car in the lane next to him.

    Great job, that man, take skill to occupy two lanes for a full 2 miles, not a lot of skill, but skill.

  18. starskeptic says

    IIRC, former Chicago Tribune reporter Bob Greene did a column about riding with a state trooper and did observe one of these ‘lefties’ getting ticketed for obstructing traffic – even though the driver was going the speed limit, he was instructed that it was the trooper’s job to enforce the speed limit, not the driver’s.

    One long time truck driver commented on the passing on the right thing by saying that they called the left side the “passing side” and the right side the “suicide” because of the difficulty truck drivers have seeing more of what’s going on on that side.

  19. Reginald Selkirk says

    Karen Locke #10: I have extended the definition to refer to people driving slowly on mountain roads who won’t pull into turnouts for the traffic backed up behind them.

    So it was you riding my bumper all the way down Mt. Palomar! And I thought it was obvious that I wasn’t the problem since there was a large semi in front of me.

    Another peeve of mine is cars who cross the center line on curves. It’s just stupid.

  20. Reginald Selkirk says

    starskeptic #20: One long time truck driver commented on the passing on the right thing by saying that they called the left side the “passing side” and the right side the “suicide”

    I saw stickers on the back of a truck to that effect during a recent interstate drive.
    I have to note though: if you don’t want to be passed on the right, stay in the right lane.

  21. casper says

    “Those drivers who camp out in the left lane permanently,” I hope you are not one of those drivers who feel entitled to tailgate or drive poorly around the slower driver.

  22. Sunday Afternoon says

    I personally cannot wait for fully autonomous cars, where I get in and say “take me home!” and can then do something useful like take a nap. My current car is “slightly” autonomous with adaptive cruise control which is a great feature in itself.

  23. Mano Singham says

    casper @#23,

    I never tailgate, because that is both dangerous and rude. What I do is wait in the right lane until that lane clears enough to pass on the right.

  24. Crimson Clupeidae says

    As someone who spends most of their time on two wheels, either motorized, or pedal powered, all of the above are an issue. All of them are compounded by the fact that so many drivers are driving distracted by their cell phones.

    casper, if you’re driving slow in the left lane, the other drivers are, actually entitled (by law) to go around you. If you are one of the slow left lane campers, you are responsible for much of the bad behavior you might observe. GTFO.

  25. leni says

    Combine that with the “California swerve”…

    Every. Morning. ><

    But it's not just a CA thing- I live in WI and we have "Slower Traffic Keep Right" signs about every few miles. Nobody reads them, apparently, because I see this just about every day. Who are these people, though, and did they not learn about passing lanes in Driver's Ed? I kind of suspect they are the same people who troll youtube videos. There might be some overlap in those Venn diagrams 🙂

  26. casper says

    It is good to hear you all do not tailgate the slow driver or use their bad driving to justify more bad driving.

    I’m not the slow driver in the passing lane, LOL. I have thought GTFO a few times.

  27. Wotan Nichols says

    WRT passing on the right–on I-84 heading east into Hartford, the traffic engineers put in a 3rd lane on the right just before each exit, which then goes back to 2 lanes immediately after the exit. When the traffic density is high enough, people use this 3rd right-hand lane to swoop around as many cars as possible before dodging back into the center lane which then quickly becomes the rightmost of two again, until the next short section of 3 lanes. Traffic speed oscillated between 40 & 85 with a period of a couple of minutes, all the way to Hartford. It would have been fun except for the possibility of imminent death.

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