The American Plague of Overtaking on the Right
By Jason Lu
According to the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, American road safety has been increasing for many years, but statistics show that the downward trend of traffic fatalities has been slowing. In 2006, there were 42,642 road fatalities. When compared to year 1980, the beginning of the decade in which several states passed seat-belt laws, year 2006 had a 17% decrease in deaths. Compared to 1990, fatality numbers in 2006 were only a four percent improvement, and in year 2000, fatalities actually increased by two percent. The major cause of the recent slowdown can be attributed to America’s use of “regulations over enforcement”. In other words, the United States has been focusing on the safety of the vehicles rather than the safety of driving itself.
The United States seems to have an inability, or unwillingness, to implement and enforce traffic safety laws other than speed limits. It has become an epidemic where highway patrols are seen by many as revenue collectors from speeding tickets than actual traffic safety enforcers. Most importantly, a law that many developed countries have enforced just as rigorously as speed limits, if not more, is rarely followed and even nonexistent in most of the United States: Keep right except to pass.
Most likely, a majority of us have had this happen. We’re cruising along a three-lane highway when we see an 18-wheeler semi in the center lane. We flash our signals left to overtake and step on the gas a bit only to find ourselves braking a few moments later in the wake of someone doing 55mph in the passing lane. We are then left in a situation where the center and left lane are blocked by vehicles traveling side-by-side at the same speed. To get around them, the only option is to skip two lanes of traffic and move all the way over to the right where the trucker has the biggest blind spot. After you finally reach the right lane and begin passing the truck, the signals on the massive 75-feet semi come on, indicating that it wants to take the next exit ramp. Frantically, we have to decide whether to complete the pass or slow down to let the truck in. Traffic begins to back up as drivers begin to weave around the truck. Distances between vehicles shrink, the game of tailgating begins and as you drive under an overpass, the cop hiding behind the bridge pillars seems to not even notice. Am I being too cynical by saying that driving in America is more dangerous than almost every developed nation in the world?
Lane-changing is one of the most dangerous maneuvers in driving. In fact, it is so dangerous that more than 250,000 crashes occur every year in the U.S. due to lane-changing errors, which amounts to one crash every two minutes. If the United States is really concerned about traffic safety, why haven’t states taken steps to make lane-changing safer and lane-discipline a part of American driving?
Cruising in the left lane does not only impede the flow of traffic, but it also creates a hazard for people who have to pass on the right, people that you might not see in your blind spots. Europeans have long realized the risk of such practice and have laws in place to combat the maneuver. “Lane courtesy” as we know it in the United States is “lane discipline” in Europe. It is strictly forbidden to cruise in the left lane of any multilane motorway. Also prohibited is passing on the right. When watching videos of European highways, the practice is clear: The right lane contains normal traffic while the left lane is occupied only by overtakers, who move right when they are done overtaking. At highways with three or more lanes, the right-most lane is again for normal traffic while every lane to its left is consistently faster than traffic to its right. Motorists are always required to move right when it is safe and possible to do so. In light traffic on highways with three or more lanes, the left lane could be empty for long stretches, as Europeans know to use only the lanes that are needed which are the right lane for cruising and the center for passing. In all situations, faster drivers have the right of way and when being overtaken, slower drivers must yield and allow the overtaker to return to their lane, even if it means slowing down. The only exception on the highway is when there is a traffic jam, during which you are not passing a vehicle, but driving past it.
In some sections of highways where traffic is dense, heavy trucks are prohibited from passing at all and are entitled to drive only in the right lane. The result is smoother traffic flow where all slow-accelerating vehicles are kept from the left lanes. Other safety measures are also in place to facilitate merging and lane changing among trucks. Some countries have distance requirements. In Germany, trucks and buses must stay at least 50 meters (164 feet) behind the vehicle in front of them. This measure increases maneuvering leeway and allows traffic coming from onramps to enter the freeway safely.
Traffic laws in Europe are strictly enforced and violators will face heavy fines and in some cases, license suspension. In the Netherlands, overtaking on the right carries a USD $225 fine. Cruising in the left lane carries the same fine. Drivers who turn without signaling are charged $90 dollars, and those who tailgate can face a fine between $270 under 50mph to over $720 at freeway speeds (75 mph). The result is a safe and civilized driving environment where drivers can travel on highways with speeds exceeding 80 miles an hour.
In the United States, traffic laws such as those mentioned above are virtually nonexistent. States that do have laws rarely, if ever, enforce them. “I wouldn’t be running around giving people tickets,” said Washington Rep. Liz Loomis, D-Snohomish, the vice chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee. “I would be out educating people about why it’s the law and why it’s just common courtesy to stay in the right lane to let faster traffic pass you.” Just common courtesy? Are some lawmakers really that clueless? There is a reason why European countries enforce passing lane laws more than speed limits. It’s for the safety of the drivers. Thankfully, there are other sides to the argument as well. “The law’s intent is to make sure the flow of traffic is maximized and bottlenecks prevented,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, a member of the House Transportation Committee. “If there are people creating a hazard you want the State Patrol to do what’s appropriate. I would expect the State Patrol will use common sense.”
With 2006 data provided by the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, the United States ranked 11th lowest in road fatalities, averaging 8.8 deaths per billion kilometers traveled. The countries that ranked above the U.S. are Sweden with 5.9 deaths per billion kilometers traveled, followed by Switzerland, Great Britain, Finland, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, and France, all of which are highly motorized and developed nations, and all of which strictly enforce the passing lane law.
One country – Germany – has no speed limits on more than 50% of its highways, but still manages to be safer than the United States. German driving laws, some of the strictest and most heavily enforced in the world, are outlined in the U.S. Military Police Drivers Handbook and Examination Manual for Germany. The section for lane usage and passing lane laws can be found here.
By looking at the extent of traffic law enforcement in other developed nations, it is no surprise that the United States is continuously lagging behind in traffic safety. The majority of drivers in the United States are driving incorrectly and dangerously, while the politicians continue to wonder why our roads are not as safe as they should be. The United States can dramatically reduce the number of accidents and the amount of congestion on our highways if the passing lane law is in place and enforced nationwide. There is absolutely no reason to build twelve-lane highways and the Europeans have proved that six-lanes will be sufficient with well-regulated traffic flow. America is one of the most dangerous places to drive in any developed nation, but driving risks will only continue to rise if steps are not taken to implement and enforce traffic laws.
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