Hey, buddy, get out of the left lane! Bill aims to tweak rules of the road.

  • If there’s a car passing you on the right lane of the highway, you’re doing something wrong – and maybe illegal. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Tuesday, December 19, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: David Brooks will join NHPR’s The Exchange on Thursday morning to bloviate about interesting science and tech stories of 2017. The show begins at 9 a.m. and will be available online at NHPR.org.


Sometimes people do stuff that drives other people much crazier than seems appropriate. Case in point: Slower drivers in the left-hand lane.

The reality is that if we have to slow down a bit on the interstate because some slug-a-bed is puttering along in a Prius (stereotype allowed; I drive a Prius), it isn’t really much of a problem. At worst it will add an extra 30 seconds or – horrors! – a full minute to our trip.

Yet that 30 seconds will seem like an eternity of torture. For some reason, having to reduce speed in the “fast lane” riles up our lizard brains, making us foam at the mouth in rage and rant about how certain people shouldn’t be allowed on the road.

Well, fear not: The law is on the lizard brain’s side. As is transportation science. And me – mostly.

First, the law. In New Hampshire, as in at least 28 other states, it is illegal to drive “less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing” in the left-hand lane of a multi-lane road unless you’re passing somebody or have a good reason, such as the right lane is blocked or you’re preparing for a left turn.

There’s a lot more verbiage in the law, RSA 265:16, which is why state Rep. Reed Panasiti of Amherst wants to replace it with something simpler.

“It just goes on and on. It’s all lawyer talk that basically says if you’re going the speed limit or lower than the speed limit, try to stay right,” Panasiti said.

Panasiti’s proposal, House Bill 1595, would trim much of the verbiage to this: “Vehicles using any New Hampshire roadway shall travel in the right lane nearest the right side of the highway unless lawfully passing another vehicle. Persons driving in the far left lane for any other reason or purpose shall be guilty of a violation.”

He submitted his bill for the most basic of representational-democracy reasons: A constituent wanted it. Presumably it was a constituent whose lizard brain had gotten all fired up on the F.E. Everett Turnpike.

“What this gentleman was telling me was: There’s a lot of room for interpretation in the law,” Panasiti said. The hope is that more clarity will lead to more dawdlers getting out of the left-hand lane.

“Everybody I’ve talked to about it is very positive,” Panasiti said.

Panasiti is a first-term representative and admits that he’s still learning the ropes about how best to get legislation onto the books.

“It may not pass, may not even get out of committee,” he acknowledged. “But let’s discuss it and see if there’s a way we want to bring a little bit of civility back to highways.”

New Hampshire’s law, like most state laws in this area, is based on the federal Uniform Vehicle Code. That’s where the phrase “normal speed of traffic” comes from.

This phrase is at the heart of the confusion of the law, I think, because it strongly implies that speeding is fine if everybody else is speeding, too.

It seems to say that if three Teslas and a 1974 Camaro come screaming up behind me while I’m going 70 to pass a car going 64, I have to stomp on the gas and race around the laggard at 80 or else I am impeding the “normal speed of traffic” established by the lead-foots behind me.

Actually, the lead-foots have a point, to an extent. There are multiple traffic-engineering studies that say the most dangerous thing that happens on highways is changing lanes. When slower folks are in the left lane, those lead-foot drivers switch lanes to get around them, raising the chance of an crash. That’s why highway engineers want to keep the passing lane as clear as possible.

There’s an unspoken bit of reasoning here: that the only measure of a highway is its throughput, as engineers say. That is to say, a highway’s value is solely a function of how many vehicles can pass any given point at any given time.

On country roads or city streets, that is absolutely wrong. Building streets or smaller roads solely so more cars can travel faster leads to ugly sprawl, empty downtowns and the sort of life that most of us want to escape.

For interstates and turnpikes, however, the reductionism makes sense. Like everybody else, on Interstate 93 my only thought is “how soon can I get off this furshlugginer road?” Keeping my Prius out of the left-hand lane, it seems, will help.

Or, as Panasiti put it: “My mother once told me, and I’ve never forgotten: If you pass somebody, don’t dilly-dally – pass them and get back in the lane.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)