Life in fast lane can be slow pain


February 26, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

They are among the most reviled figures driving our roads: those who clog the left lanes of our highways and get in the way of red-blooded Americans who just want to get somewhere fast.

A reminder of this species of driver comes from reader Carl I. Thistel of Baltimore, who suggested - "as someone who is disposed to at least maintain if not slightly exceed the posted speed limit" - that this column address the subject of "left lane huggers."

"From my own observations [they] fall into two basic types: the BLUENOSES who believe they have been anointed with the mission to keep traffic at or below the posted speed limit, and the OBLIVIOUS who remain steadfastly focused on where they are going and at a speed they feel comfortable with," he continued.

Thistel suggests that these folks "seldom come in for the opprobrium we level at speeders" and expresses the conviction that they are implicated in "many an accident they are unaware of."

Since beginning this column last fall, I've been keeping an eye out for these varmints, but it's time I confessed failure.

They're all but extinct. The old lady driving 45 mph on the interstate has passed away. Either that or she's been scared off the highways and is creeping along the back roads. The bluenose, if he ever existed outside the imagination of would-be speeders, is riding public transit and feeling virtuous.

Today, Carl, the people contending for the left lane fall into two groups: "flow-of-traffic" drivers and extreme speeders.

The flow-of-traffic driver is most of us. We aren't religious about adherence to the posted limits but we stay within the bounds of common sense. The police, recognizing that our roads can tolerate 5-8 mph over the speed limit under ideal conditions, generally write few tickets for those who travel in that range.

The extreme speeder wants to go 80, 85, 90 mph and resents anyone who slows him or her down.

Let's imagine a day on Interstate 97 - a familiar route from eight years of commuting to Annapolis. It's two lanes in each direction for much of its length and is the scene of some of the most moronic driving behavior in Maryland. (Perhaps correlated with a high percentage of legislative license plates.)

Typically, traffic on 97 moves in two streams. One, made up largely of trucks and more leisurely passenger vehicle drivers, cruises in the right lane at the speed limit or slightly more - say 65-68 mph. The other stream goes slightly faster, maybe 70-73. These vehicles do not move to the right after passing each vehicle because they are steadily overtaking the slower traffic at a moderate pace. There is no need to change lanes for the sake of changing lanes. All is peace and harmony.

Then along comes our super speeder in the left lane. In a flash this driver is glued to the tail of the relatively benign speeder in the left lane and is annoyed at being forced to decelerate into the 70s. After putting up with the agony of this slow pace for a nanosecond or two, this suffering soul starts with the flashing headlights and horn blasts.

What Flash fails to grasp is that tailgating makes it more difficult for the driver ahead to make a safe lane change. Try it next time you're being followed by a bumper-kisser. It's hard to check your blind spot at 70 mph when someone's a car's length behind.

Now conventional wisdom says the thing to do is to signal and move right as soon as possible. I disagree. Maybe that made sense in the 1990s, but the modern breed of speeder-tailgater doesn't follow the old rules.

Stay where you are. Maintain your speed. Don't slow or be pushed into driving faster than your own pace.

Why? Because the super-speeder is going to zip past you on the right - signal or no signal. It will be done in a jerking, darting motion that expresses the driver's indignation at delay. If you begin to change lanes, this person will either collide with you as you move right or roar past on the left before you fully vacate that lane.

Either way, the super-speeder will revile you as a "left-lane hugger" and swear you were going under the speed limit. Somehow you'll survive.

The code of the road is common sense. Someone who intentionally goes 50 mph in the left lane of a 65-mph highway should be ticketed. But as far as menaces go, such folks hardly crack the top 10.

Yes, the left lane is for faster-moving traffic. But it's also for the left exits and left entrances our traffic engineers seem to love. In times of heavy traffic, it's a vital part of the road's capacity that can't be left clear for a tiny minority of would-be NASCAR drivers.

So, Carl, if I'm in the left lane and you want to go faster, try this. Move slightly into the comfort zone between our cars and apply gentle pressure at a steady speed. Have a little patience, and I'll move right as soon as it's safe. Let me clear the lane, and then go as fast as you want.

But get too close and I'll hug the left lane.

For dear life.

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