'Slowpoke' laws target left-lane plodders
States throughout the country are cracking down on drivers who poke along in the left-hand lane. They're imposing new laws, strengthening existing laws, or stepping up enforcement of laws that penalize those who drive too slowly in the left lane, or who tool along in the left lane, rather than using it as a passing lane.
So while speeding could earn you a traffic ticket, along with points on your driver's license, fines and higher car insurance rates, going too slow in the fast lane often can bring the same penalties.
In some states the law targets those who go below the speed limit in the left lane; in others it's aimed at those who block traffic in the left lane, regardless of how fast they're going.
In some states the law applies only to those traveling on the interstates; in other states it applies to anyone driving on a divided highway.
A slower driver in the left lane can prompt other motorists to weave in and out of traffic, trying to pass them. "With each lane change, there are more opportunities for a crash," says Capt. Stephen Jones, spokesperson for the New Jersey State Police. New Jersey increased its penalties for slow drivers in the left lane last year.
"I have seen cases where someone is trying to zip in between the guys on the right when the one in front is going slow, and those are dangerous maneuvers," Northeast Florida Safety Council director Jerry Webster told the Florida Times-Union when his state's law went into effect. "And when people get frustrated, they will forget to use turn signals, and you don't know what they are going to do. They will be tailgating and there are rear-end collisions when the person going slow on the left slows down even more."
Slower traffic keep right
The latest state to climb on the bandwagon is Georgia. This year both the state House and the state Senate have approved a new law that allows officers to ticket slower drivers in the left lane. It now awaits signature from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
It applies to anyone driving on a divided highway or interstate -- even if they're going the speed limit.
If you don't move to the right when another driver wants to zip past you in Georgia, you could face up to a $1,000 fine and year in prison. There are exemptions for situations such as traffic congestion or hazardous conditions.
Last year, Florida enacted a law that can penalize drivers going 10 mph or more below the speed limit in the left lane and don't get out of the way for faster vehicles. You can wind up with a $60 fine and three points on your driver's license.
New Jersey also has boosted the fines motorists face for driving too slowly in the left lane. The fines had been between $50 and $200; now they're between $100 and $300.
Motorists need to remember to keep right and leave the left lane free for passing, Jones says. Those who are stopped could receive a ticket and two points on their driver's license - the same as a speeding violation of 14 mph over the limit or less.
Any moving violation has the potential to jack up car insurance rates, says Insure.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. "One company may not count a minor infraction like this, another might remove your good driver discount, and another could actually raise your rates," she says.
Defusing 70-mph brinksmanship
The new patchwork of laws may seem confusing, but the underlying rule of the road isn't. The U.S. Uniform Vehicle Code - the underpinning of traffic laws in most states - requires that cars moving at less than the "normal speed of traffic" move to the right.
Additional state laws typically add fines and penalties for specific circumstances. In some states, the left lane is for passing only. In others, you are required to move right only if a faster car approaches, or only if the slower car is driving 10 mph or more below the limit.
The intent behind the laws is the same: keep traffic flowing and limit road rage.
Slowpokes in the left lane might prompt impatient drivers to do something risky, says Lynne McChristian, Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute. "When people are blocked from driving at the speed they want, they sometimes create a dangerous situation not only for themselves but for everyone else on the road."
The law takes into account situations where the weather is bad, and a motorist who tries to speed in a blinding rainstorm, for example, could be ticketed for going too fast for conditions, McChristian says.
A law can't move that Camry by itself
Even after a state enacts such laws, there's no guarantee motorists will naturally comply.
Jones, of the New Jersey State Police, says that in many cases, out-of-state drivers are the most likely to camp out in the left lane.
Even residents may simply not know the law.
Washington state created a YouTube campaign in 2011 to spread the word about its Keep Right Law, yet stepped up enforcement earlier this year. Motorists are required to keep right on a multilane road unless they're passing, or they could face a $124 fine.
"While camping in the left lane might be among the most annoying violations out there, we really don't have any evidence that it's causing serious collisions," says Robert Calkins, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol.
Troopers typically will educate motorists about the law, rather than ticket them, he says.
Last year, Washington troopers contacted more than 14,000 who were violating the state's laws about driving in the left lane, and wrote more than 1,100 citations. But Calkins says data doesn't show how many violators were drivers of semis, who are prohibited from driving in the left lane if three lanes are available.