cars passing on highway

Should You Only Use The Left Lane To Pass?

Do you love the left lane?

When you head out on the open road, do you automatically steer toward the left lane because that’s traditionally where “faster” drivers are known to go? And while there’s nothing wrong with using the left lane as it’s intended, people who drive slowly in that lane could find themselves in trouble with the law.

Much of the current misunderstanding over the left lane stems from the 55 mph national speed limit that was enacted in 1974, according to the National Motorists Association (NMA), a grassroots drivers’ alliance that lobbies for traffic regulations and safety issues. Before this, passing on the left was an unwritten rule of the road, but after the speed limit was enacted, drivers believed that if they were maintaining the posted speed limit then they could chill anywhere. “Because the speed limit was too low, drivers trying to pass weren’t allowed to and it caused a lot of problems, and it still does,” says Shelia Dunn, Communications Director of the NMA.

Reserving the left lane only for passing other cars—known as “lane courtesy”—reaps surprising benefits, however. Here’s why you should reserve your left-lane use for passing only.

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You’ll Avoid Tickets And Fines

Police officer writing ticketPeople have different interpretations of how to drive in the left lane, but staying there when you’re not passing isn’t allowed in most states, despite what some drivers might think. Blame the confusion on the lack of a nationwide law. In 29 states, there are laws that any car moving slower than the surrounding traffic should be in the right lane, while other states are stricter and designate the left lane only for turning or passing. In Georgia, it’s actually a misdemeanor to move slower in the left lane than surrounding traffic. This year, Tennessee cracked down and now has established a $50 fine for slow left-lane drivers.

It’s Safer

Beyond avoiding fines (always a plus!), abiding by lane courtesy makes the roads safer for everyone, as faster drivers have a quick and easy way to get around slower drivers. “You’re less likely to get into an accident because traffic is always flowing and more consistent,” says Dunn.

You’ll Save On Gas

Following the letter of the law can save you a few bucks, too. Maintaining your speed and sticking to the right can get you better gas mileage. You’re also doing planet Earth a solid. Less weaving in and out of lanes is more fuel-efficient and better for the environment, so even if you forgot to recycle last week, you can still be a tad proud of yourself if you stick to the right.

You’ll Stress Less

Trying to zip around cars doesn’t significantly improve your commute time, either. “If you remain at a consistent speed limit and only drive to the left if you need to, you’re going to ultimately get to your destination faster,” says Dunn. Plus, lane courtesy might just be the quickest cure for road rage. “If you’re weaving in and out and cutting people off, you may cause road rage in others, and that’s what we really need to stop,” says Dunn.

Of course lane courtesy is easier said than done, especially in states with heavily trafficked motorways. But you don’t have to give up entirely. “Don’t just park yourself in one of the middle lanes,” recommends Dunn. “You should really be cognizant of trucks and what everyone around you is doing, and try to drive right as much as possible.” But staying in the right lane doesn’t mean you can zone out, either: Remember to be aware of and make room for merging vehicles.

In the end, lane courtesy actually helps all drivers treat one another as equals on the road—and makes the highways and freeways a safer space for everyone.

Before you take off to your next destination, get a fast, free auto insurance quote from GEICO to see how much you could save.

Next: The rules of the road aren’t always cut and dry, so take our “Are You a Good Driver?” quiz to find out how you compare with your fellow motorists.

By Kara Cutruzzula

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    Leave a comment

  1. Zemo says,

    So basically if you are a consistent/ insistent speeder, you get to remain in the left lane because you–by virtue of your speeding–are ALWAYS in the process of overtaking someone! See it every day, often with tailgating other left lane speeders who are not as speedy as they. Some states have recognized this roughshod speeder loop hole and have disallowed these left lane laws in urban areas.

  2. john says,

    I’m with you except on middle lanes: what do you propose the middle lanes (in multi-lane tpks and interstates) is for? to be left empty but for passing? You are almost certainly wrong about this point, and the middle lane is often a safe and smart choice eg on busy Massachusettes roads (often 4 lanes) with exits every mile.

  3. Merrill Gehman says,

    When you address the passing lane or left lane issues without using left Lanes , plural, you may be missing much of the point ,and not understanding driving on North American roads well enough. Every lane to the left of the right lane are not camping spots. Camping for best results in having traffic move smoothly and efficiently should only be permitted in the right lane, not any other lane to the left except where there’s more than 4 lanes ther, than this rule though still exist there becomes slightly diluted. To not mention those middle lanes to me is as frustrating as dealing with someone camped in the left lane. Drive Right Pass Left , When finished Move back tight. Don’t hold up others , Or Force Them To Pass You On The Right. And also remember you might be holding someone up if they catch up to you. Don’t make them tailgate you to let you know your holding them up. If they’re 3 seconds or closer, you may be holding them up .

    • Zemo says,

      Basically, the country just needs to move away from formal speed limits and just go to distance-following limits plus no passing on the right. Three car lengths/3 seconds space between vehicles on any highway. It’s the tailgaters most people want cracked down on. Can still have speed suggestions posted as advice.

  4. Mark says,

    If people were cognizant of what other drivers were doing around them, people entering the highway on-ramp would be able to merge with traffic instead of cutting people off. As far as I know drivers shouldn’t prevent vehicles from merging with traffic, but too many drivers coming down the on-ramp focus on moving over into the lane rather than staying ahead of the vehicle already in that lane resulting in trying to merge where there isn’t a space for their vehicle. They either cut someone off and slow down traffic on the freeway, or they end up stopping traffic on the on-ramp at the end of the merge lane. Without room to accelerate, unable to get up to speed in order to merge with traffic that has the right of way and doesn’t have to stop to let you in because it’s dangerous.

    Drivers would also not get cut off very often if they were aware of the other drivers around them. Based off of how another driver is approaching and traffic flow around your vehicle it’s not that hard to guess their intentions and even their most likely route through traffic. Someone tailgating another driver in the lane next to you is very likely to cut you off as soon as they have the room to do so. If you can walk within a crowd headed in direction you can drive without being cut off.

    Finally, don’t get road rage when you get cut off, most times the signs are there it’s gonna happen! Even then let others speed if they want to, if in the left lane let them pass and go right back to the left lane. I don’t get pissed when someone is tailgating me, I let em pass because I’m not their daddy and they’re responsible for themselves. Please, drive as fast as you want it’s your ticket. I saw you coming up behind me which is why I sped up a little so you don’t cut me off, but then I maintained that speed so I could let you pass me and we’re all happy now aren’t we? If you get mad, the only one mad is you… However, don’t let a road raging driver chasing you get in front of you if you can help it otherwise they have the advantage in taking out their rage on you.

    Be aware of your surroundings on the road and the intent of other drivers, don’t judge others just because they’re not as law abiding as you are, we don’t need traffic vigilantes and reckless drivers road raging with each other. Finally if you tend to hesitate when navigating traffic or don’t want to keep up with the flow of traffic stay off the freeway and drive normal streets.

  5. Matt V says,

    I’d like to point out the bias in this article and basically every other article I’ve seen written on this subject. All the benefits of not driving in the left lane would be equally found if people would instead adhere to the speed limit and then allow driving in any lane. Traffic slower than the speed limit should still move right of course. Legally the article is correct, but the bias in favor of speeders needs to be recognized.

    • Donnie Bell says,

      Insurance studies have shown that many accidents have happened when drivers in the left lane have unknowingly been in the “blind spot” of drivers in the right lane.. Pacing a vehicle causes congestion, which causes accidents also. Be courteous, keep right unless passing, it keeps the lane open for emergency traffic also.

  6. gail says,

    State “keep right” laws List shows Missouri as ” Right” which is not defined in the comments above the list, So what does that mean. I believe it should show Yes.

  7. Allred says,

    This text defies logic in so many places. How would staying in the right lane lead to less weaving and changing lanes? You would constantly need to change lanes to avoid entering vehicles and yo pass slow vehicles. The slow left lane hogs stay in the left lane exactly for the purpose of avoiding any lane changes. In short, you should stay in the lane which fits best your intended speed. While telling people to not stay in the left lane when not passing is fine, I can’t call this whole article anything but misinformed, daft, illogical; in short: stupid.

    • Beck says,

      No need to insult the author of this article. They got their point across that the left lane is only for passing.

      Since you don’t understand how everyone staying in one lane with an open lane for others to pass in would leave to less weaving, watch this 3 minute video

      Avoiding lane changes is no reason to stay in the left lane, and it’s just as illegal as speeding.

  8. Joseph S Delrie says,

    I can think of several reasons why the left lane should not be designated as a passing lane. First, with the bulk of traffic in the right lane it gets worn out very quickly causing major damage to vehicles that obey the law and stay in the right lane, like tires and windshield leaks. Second, it is impossible to maintain the average speed in the right lane with the constant passing that is necessary to get around the traffic that is moving 10+ mph below the speed limit. The constant acceleration and slowing down also kill gas mileage. Third, many people still use the left lane as a high speed lane so if you are in the right lane sometimes you are stuck literally hours in the right lane because you can’t match the speed in the left lane to get around the hay truck (or other Agri vehicle) going 40 mph. As on I40 between Little Rock and Memphis.

  9. garma says,

    It would be nice if articles like this pointed out that most states’ passing-lane-only laws apply to highways over a certain limit, not side roads unless posted!

    This law almost always only applies to multi-lane highways out of the metro area unless signs specify otherwise and end when “highway ends”.

    ***Please do not make people believe this applies to all roads.***


  10. Nabby says,

    “Because the speed limit was too low, drivers trying to pass weren’t allowed to and it caused a lot of problems, and it still does”

    I don’t understand this argument. Like it or not, the speed limit is still the limit and anyone going faster than that is breaking the law. You’re blaming people who obey the law for being in the way of people who don’t. It’s the people going faster than the posted limit that cause the problems.

    • Neal Flanagan says,

      But you are also breaking the law and causing accidents. What makes you feel your are entitled to be a vigilante?

      • Matt Vang says,

        No one should be in the left lane in order to teach someone else a lesson or to be a “vigilante”.

        But it’s really hard to blame someone going the limit for causing an accident involving someone doing something stupid just so they can then speed illegally. Let’s have some perspective.

    • Donnie Bell says,

      The so-called “speed limit” is variable in most States, depending on location and State laws. Some States have “absolute” laws, some have “variable” laws with unposted maximum limits. Meaning “flow” of traffic over-rides speed limits.. It is far more dangerous, proven by insurance studies, to “congest” traffic, than it is to “ease” use.. If you are blocking traffic, you are due a citation in all State of the USA.. Speeding is NOT the number one cause of accidents, failure to yield “right of way” is…

      • Your mom says,

        Yeah no it’s not. It’s Nancy and Karen’s worrying about everyone else’s business. On their phones, impeding traffic flow, rubbernecking. Etc..

  11. Ramon S Ramsey says,

    I like to read these articles. I find them very informative and useful, not to mention that they have a tendency to keep you sharp and road savvy. Good stuff all the way around !

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