States push to keep highway left lanes clear for passing

ST. LOUIS (AP) — From stricter laws to public service campaigns and pleading electronic road signs, states have a message for the drivers clogging the inside lanes of the nation’s highways: Get the heck out of the way!

Few things infuriate drivers more than a car or truck in a highway’s left lane that isn’t keeping up with the flow of traffic.

Most states already have laws stipulating that the left lane is for passing or turning left, not for cruising. Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Nevada and Oklahoma are among states with new laws increasing fines and ratcheting up enforcement.

Others are taking a more subtle approach. Missouri nudges drivers with funny signs. Michigan troopers use traffic stops for a teaching moment.

Some experts believe that driving too slow in the passing lane is at least as dangerous as driving too fast because people trapped from behind get frustrated and make dangerous maneuvers, creating anger and accidents.

As far as Derek Stagner is concerned, any crackdown is long overdue. Stagner, 46, commutes 10 miles every day to his job at the downtown St. Louis creative firm Elasticity, and frequently gets caught behind slow-moving drivers in the left lane.

“Why has no one ever told them this is not what you should do?” Stagner asked. “I think it creates road rage. People get upset and then it becomes combative.”

State legislatures increasingly agree.

Oklahoma’s law, which took effect Wednesday and requires drivers to stay to the right unless passing or preparing to turn left, carries fines of more than $200 for left lane dawdlers.

“I believe it has caused some road rage incidents,” said Trooper Dwight Durant, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. “It’s caused some collisions with property damage, personal injury and even death. We’re hopeful this new law will cut down on that.”

Similar laws that took effect July 1 in Virginia and Nevada carry fines of up to $250 for left lane hogs, and several other states are considering similar measures.

Other states are trying a gentler approach.

The Missouri Department of Transportation typically uses its 280 electronic highway message boards to warn motorists of wrecks up ahead or slippery conditions. But the messages also include public service notices about buckling up, putting down the cellphone and driving in the proper lane.

“Camp in the Ozarks, not the left lane,” one recent message read.

In addition to its new law, Oklahoma has erected 234 signs warning drivers not to “impede the left lane.”

In March, the Michigan State Police launched the “Southpaw Initiative,” in which violators were pulled over and educated by the trooper on the left lane law and how driving slowly in it disrupts traffic flow. Most of those stopped were let off with a warning.

Not everyone likes the laws. Maryland legislators narrowly defeated a slowpoke measure earlier this year, and Charles E. Sydnor III, a Democrat who represents Baltimore County, is happy they did.

Sydnor said he was driving in the left lane recently in neighboring Virginia when an officer pulled him over. He told the officer he was preparing for a left turn. He did not get a ticket but said he was angered by the officer’s condescending tone.

“Once you incentivize law enforcement to go after people in the left lane, it could be a pretext to pulling people over for no reason,” Sydnor said.

Still, Linda Wilson Horn of the Missouri Department of Transportation said driving slow in the left lane is among the most common complaints her office gets from drivers.

“There are times when the roads are very congested and people do get frustrated,” she said.

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