Don’t Pass on the Right (Even the REALLY Slow Drivers)

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Driving in the left lane on the highway/Image Credit: Taras Makarenko

Slow drivers are annoying, but drivers who violate the rules of the road are dangerous. Even minor behaviors like passing on the right create havoc in traffic and can have legal consequences. You can avoid illegal and often dangerous situations by making a point to always use the left lane to pass. Here’s why.

We’re All in This Together

My girlfriend and I conducted a little social experiment a few months ago on a road trip. I get restless on road trips, so I generally prefer to be behind the wheel. It also factors in that my girlfriend can be a little prone to road rage and that’s not really the vibe I’m looking for while traveling.

Anyway, back to the social experiment. I was pretty tired from the late night I had before, so my wonderful girlfriend offered to take the wheel for a few hours as we made our way from Los Angeles to Phoenix. It wasn’t long before she was (rightfully) annoyed by the number of drivers – seemingly with their cruise control set below the posted speed limit – just cruising along in the left lane.

Soon, a pattern emerged. We’d approach a car in the left lane, wait for a moment, an audible “huff” would come from the driver’s seat, and we’d quickly move into the right lane. Then, we’d pass them and jump right back into the left lane to do the whole thing over again. Often when we’d do this, my girlfriend would speed up to pass the car only to find a vehicle driving even slower in the right lane. So, now it was a race to get back into the left lane ahead of the cause of the “huff” and before we crashed into the fast-approaching Chrysler Pacifica with a stick figure family on the window.

After a few huffs and Fast & Furious maneuvers, I noticed that we were now doing most of our driving in the left lane and we were no longer waiting for vehicles to move over before jumping into the right lane. And every time we had to do this, traffic behind us slowed down even more due to the discombobulation.

Be the Change

So, I carefully pointed out that this isn’t really how this is all supposed to work. Of course, my girlfriend was quick to point out that it was the slow drivers in the left lane who were throwing everything off. After all, the left lane is for passing. She was right. But now those drivers had changed our own driving behavior and we were no longer abiding by that rule either. What if we flipped the script?

I proposed that she be more patient, stay in the right lane as long as possible, and when she was ready to pass someone, she would: move to the left lane and stay at a safe distance behind the next vehicle until they moved over or until it was blatantly obvious that we were waiting on them. If they didn’t take the hint, we could move back over to the right lane and calmly get around them. Again, the point was to spend as much time in the right lane as possible and ALWAYS give slow drivers in the left lane ample opportunity to move over for us to pass them on that side.

She was skeptical but agreed to give my way a try. And lo and behold, we actually fixed traffic! Okay, not everyone changed their driving behavior, but MOST people did! We found that if we waited long enough for someone to move over, they usually would. And if they didn’t, when they saw us cautiously go around the other way and stay in the right lane until we were ready to pass again – a lot of those slowpokes on the left would move over behind us. Soon, just about everyone was doing the dance – driving on the right, passing on the left. It was beautiful.

Laws and Norms Matter

To be clear, it wasn’t just my driving preference being vindicated here. There are laws about this! The U.S. has plenty of weird traffic laws that you could be forgiven for not knowing, however, there are certain rules of the road that remain constant wherever you go. In fact, most traffic laws are pretty consistent across all states. That includes laws about how the left lane should be used.

Even if you’re surrounded by slow drivers and it seems like getting around them is only possible by passing on the right, you’re better off staying in your lane. This rule applies to all multi-lane roads – even in cities. Everyone should do most of their driving in the right lane. This is because the left lane is primarily intended for passing cars in the right lane. When everyone abides by this rule, the left lane should be mostly empty, most of the time.

Woman pulled over by police
Woman pulled over by police/Image Credit: kali9 from Getty Images Signature

Stay Legal: “Keep Right” Laws

Every state has a law about how the left lane should be used and these laws are clear: the left lane is for passing most of the time. These “keep right” laws have some variations. For example, in Washington, drivers should stay out of the left lane unless they are turning or passing drivers in the right lane.

29 other states, such as Texas, have “keep right” laws that say drivers must stay out of the left lane if they are driving slower than surrounding traffic (which is why some drivers think of the left lane as the “fast” lane). And in Nevada, the law is even more clear: the left lane should stay clear so faster traffic can pass.

Penalties for Illegal Left Lane Use

Just like you can get in trouble for violating other traffic laws, you may also face penalties for illegal use of the left lane. There’s been a recent crackdown from law enforcement on the incorrect use of the left lane. In Georgia, violating this traffic law can result in a misdemeanor. In many other states, drivers who don’t use the left lane correctly can face fines, too.

Reasons Why You Should Only Pass on the Left

Beyond the legality of it all, there are a few other reasons why you should only pass on the left. From general courtesy to making the road a safer place, some of these reasons include:

Nobody Likes a Road Hog

Hanging out in the left lane on a busy stretch of highway usually leads to a long string of cars in your rearview mirror. If you’re in the left lane, it’s expected that you are either using the lane to pass or you are consistently driving faster than the surrounding traffic. Staying in the left lane for a long time, particularly if you aren’t driving faster than cars in the right lane, means that you are single-handedly slowing down traffic for everyone behind you.

We All Want to Get Where We’re Going Safely

Abrupt or incorrect lane changes cause a significant portion of traffic congestion and accidents. Just like staying in the left lane is a problem for traffic, passing on the right can also throw traffic off. The sudden shift in speed between lane changes can lead to a domino effect where the drivers behind you have to rapidly adjust, and if drivers can’t adjust, major traffic accidents can happen.

Lane Courtesy Month

The National Motorist’s Association has named June “Lane Courtesy Month” as a national reminder to share the road and follow “keep right” laws. Having courtesy for other drivers regarding the use of the left lane keeps traffic uncongested and helps maintain the safety of the road.

It’s important to remember that norms are enforced by everyone – not just the folks with the flashing lights on their cars. Especially on long road trips, we tend to adopt the driving habits of those around us. If everyone is going 10 over, you’re more likely to do the same. Similarly, when slow drivers in the left lane see you moving over to the right until you’re ready to pass, flipping on your blinker, moving around that slow semitruck, and then getting right back into the right lane – eventually, more drivers will begin doing the same thing. Don’t believe me? Try it out on your next road trip. You may be surprised by the impact you can have on the driving behavior of others.

If you pass on the right, then you’re guilty of a traffic taboo – and you may be a contributing factor to dangerous road conditions. The left lane is intended for passing, so even if you’re stuck behind slow drivers, it’s best to follow the rules of the road and use the left lane as intended. Need a new ride to get you from A to B and everywhere in between? Find your BestRide in just a few clicks!

Brandon Cantrell

Brandon Cantrell

At over a dozen vehicles, Brandon has lost count of the cars, trucks, and motorcycles that have graced his driveway. So, when he got into digital marketing, the automotive industry was a natural fit. Brandon now has almost a half-decade of experience writing and editing various forms of automotive content.