Hey, Speed Racer, get the facts before you get outraged

Times Staff Writer

Imagine if everybody on the road would just get out of your way, there wouldn’t be any congestion -- at least not for you.

I have received a long stream of e-mails over the years from motorists stuck in the clogged arteries of Southern California’s highway system, who complain their biggest problem is with people blocking the passing lane.

In their view, if all those drivers using the No. 1 (far left) lane of the freeway would just get out of the way, they would be able to go much faster.


The underlying assumption is that the No. 1 lane is intended only for passing and mainly for those going faster than the posted speed limit.

The first time I received such a letter, I just ignored it. But after a recent column on rude traffic behavior, I was inundated with more letters from people who expressed basically the same idea.

“Each lane to the left is for traffic faster than to the right,” said one motorist. “The far left lane is for passing.”

Another reader put it this way: “Failure to drive with the flow of traffic and keep to the right when not passing are examples of two fundamental wrongs typically occurring on the freeways that often lead to tailgating and other rude behaviors.”

And here’s another one: “These left-lane bandits feel righteous in their belief that as long as they are doing the speed limit or even slightly faster, that no one else has a right to go any faster than them.”

I don’t want to belabor this, but here’s a final comment: “It’s not only discourteous but illegal to prevent a car from passing on the left because you believe you are driving ‘fast enough.’ In all forms of traffic, air, surface, water or whatever, the overtaking vehicle has the right of way over the overtaken. You’ll see the logic as well as the legal and orderliness of it.”


These comments are far off the mark, according to judges, attorneys and traffic officers. Although intentionally blocking cars that want to pass may be rude, it is unavoidable in many cases and not illegal.

“The point here is that people are complaining that they don’t have the opportunity to break the law and they want other people to move over, so they can break the law,” said Leslie MacAfee, an attorney and a Superior Court judge pro tem. “There is no right or excuse to drive in excess of the speed limit, absent exigent circumstances.”

(Just about the only really good exigent circumstance for speeding is that your wife is having a baby in the back seat and you’re headed to the hospital.)

“I just can’t imagine the police writing a ticket to somebody driving the speed limit,” said Eric Blum, another Superior Court judge pro tem.

The most common defense used by speeders in court is that they were going with the flow of traffic. Oops, that’s a losing excuse.

“When people tell me they were just going with the flow of traffic, they have just admitted to breaking the law,” Blum said.

Indeed, as I travel around the country on reporting assignments, I am struck that drivers in many other cities -- Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., to name a few -- are far more compliant with posted speed limits than here in Southern California. Speeding has become the norm.

The California Motor Vehicle Code does have a section (21654) on slow-moving vehicles that says a vehicle going “at a speed less than the normal speed . . . shall be driven in the right hand lane. . . .” But this section hardly makes it illegal or improper to drive the speed limit in the No. 1 lane of a freeway, said Miguel Luevano, a California Highway Patrol officer.

“The question is what is normal. When you read the entire vehicle code, normal refers to the speed limit,” Luevano said.

One of the biggest misconceptions motorists have is that left lanes are legally designated as passing lanes and that highway engineers designed them that way.

U.S. highway designs are based on a manual issued by the American Assn. of State Highway and Transportation Officials and nothing in that manual dictates that left lanes are intended only for passing. “As volumes grow, all the lanes have to be used accordingly,” said Ken Kobetsy, the association’s program director for engineering.

The current reality is that freeways are clogged much of the time. At 6 a.m. Sunday, you can find plenty of room on almost every freeway in the system. And perhaps a driver going the speed limit is begging for trouble if he or she is trying to stop somebody from speeding.

But at 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, every lane on the freeway is going to be at or near capacity.

“It is hard to implement a rule that the left lane is for passing here, because people are using every lane of traffic,” Luevano said.

Even when traffic is moving, if you took all the traffic in the No. 1 lane and dumped it into the other three or four lanes, what would happen? The other three lanes would slow down. As people would seek to pass in the No. 1 lane, it would quickly clog, as well.