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When to use the left lane

Periodically, the topic of left-lane louts arises.  Those are drivers who perpetually occupy the left lane of multi-lane roadways without due cause.

This time it came up when a young driver told me that he has a right to drive in that lane if he is going the speed limit.  Wrong!  Besides having a right to be there when one is overtaking another vehicle, there are a few qualifiers allowing its use — simply travelling at the posted limit is not one of them.

The subject is getting more attention lately, with safety and efficient traffic flow at the forefront of its notoriety.  About a dozen states have steadfast rules spelling out the conditions during which drivers may occupy the left lane of travel, and Washington is one of them.  Other neighboring states, like Oregon, have legislation pending to govern left lane use.

In Washington, paraphrasing Revised Code of Washington 46.61.100, drivers must stay in the right lane of a roadway having two or more lanes for traffic moving in the same direction except:  when overtaking and passing another vehicle travelling in the same direction, when moving left to allow a merge, when preparing to make a left turn, or when moving left to avoid an obstacle.

There is even a clause within the RCW to accommodate speeders, allowing left lane use, “when travelling at a speed greater than traffic flow.  This is what police and emergency vehicles are doing at times, unsafely having to decide whether the scofflaws in the left lane will move over or if they will have to dodge them to the right.

That is the main safety aspect of the law, as those who hog the left lane without reason make faster vehicles constantly zig-zag through traffic to advance their position.  Changing lanes contributes to heightened accident probability, and stifles efficient flow.

Idaho’s law is not as intense as Washington’s, but does require drivers to move right if impeding another vehicle on multi-lane roadways.  Alert drivers should always yield to faster traffic, but there are a few who seem to take pleasure in holding up speeders by enforcement through impediment.  There is an enviable safety record on the famous Autobahn in Germany.  That record is essentially attributed to drivers’ vigilance and willingness to use the left lane for passing only, quickly retreating to the right-hand lane when the pass is completed.

Besides those previously listed, there is one other circumstance where Washington drivers can legally use the left lane.  That is when complying with RCW 46.61.212, the “move over” law, requiring motorists to move left, if possible, on multi-lane roadways when encountering stationary emergency or police vehicles displaying emergency lights.  The move to the left lane must be made within 200 feet before passing the emergency vehicle if traffic allows.  When dense traffic does not allow a move to the left lane, drivers must reduce speed and move slightly left to comply with law.

Law officers are particularly sensitive to the “move over” law as traffic accident records show a legitimate vulnerability when they are out of their vehicles on the highway shoulder.

On a related note, an often-ignored Washington law requires vehicles towing trailers to drive in the right-hand lane.

So if you are in driving in the left lane, make sure there is a legal reason for it — if not, ongoing emphasis patrols may remind you with a ticket.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at precisiondriving@spokesman.com.

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