Whatever Happened to Passing Zones?

By Chris Haak

09.07.2009

no-passing-zoneOver the past few years, I’ve observed a disturbing phenomenon around my stomping grounds in Pennsylvania – the elimination of passing zones on two-lane roads.  The former passing zones make themselves obvious in a few ways – some are flagged with a “no passing” sign where you can clearly remember one had existed in the past.  Others still display remnants of the dotted center line, with a freshly-painted pair of double yellow lines atop them.  Many still maintain the telltale “no passing zone” pendant that previously marked the end of the passing zone, even though there’s no need for it after the passing zone has been shut down.  All told, it’s very upsetting to observe this trend.

Passing on a two-lane road is one of the most dangerous maneuvers that a driver can attempt.  It’s essential that visibility be at least a quarter mile in front of you and that you get a good head of steam built up before diverting into the oncoming lane.  And it’s critical that if any kind of obstacle enters your path – whether that be an animal, oncoming car, or whatever – you aren’t afraid to stab the brakes and abort the pass.  Especially if it’s an oncoming car.  It’s extremely inconsiderate to force an oncoming car off to the shoulder because you didn’t properly execute your pass, but often fatal when the worst happens – a head-on collision.

But millions of successful two-lane passes occur every day, and have been occurring every day for decades.  I don’t like the idea of my sons doing them when they’re 16 or even 18, since a successful two-lane pass requires not only optimal conditions, but also the experience and judgment to recognize when they are present and when they’re not.  Having a reserve of, say, 50 horsepower on tap certainly makes things a bit easier, as well.  I’ve found over the years that executing a clean two-lane pass in most V8s is easier than doing one in most four cylinder cars.

Plenty of people do know how to do them well, however.  And for those who are able to responsibly pass a slowpoke on a two-lane road, the killing off of passing lanes is a source of frustration.  On one rural road that I use every day on my trek to the office, there had been six passing zones, and now there are just three.  There’s nothing that made the painted-over passing zones suddenly less safe than they had been for decades – no new construction just off the road, no increased traffic flow, etc.  In fact, the three that were allowed to remain are all within a mile of one another on the 10-mile stretch that I frequent, so if the one spot that I happen to encounter slower traffic is near the passing zone, I’m in luck.  But if I stumble across a Sunday driver somewhere in the other 9 miles of the road, I’m forced to dawdle along behind them until I finally make my turn off that road.

This afternoon, I encountered a section of another rural two-lane road that was a mile-long straightaway with visibility that probably exceeded a mile.  It would have been the perfect spot to slap on a passing zone – but alas, double yellow lines.

It’s hard to say why passing zones have been disappearing.  My guess is that it’s probably a number of factors – residents complaining, increased traffic flow, an accident occurred that got people up in arms – all conspiring together.  Whatever the reason is, however, it’s probably some sort of knee-jerk overreaction to something that may not have been even a systemic problem with the former passing zone.  Save the passing zones!  And if you’re going to get rid of some, please replace them with new ones elsewhere to keep traffic flowing along.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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5 Comments

  1. i agree. sumetimes you need to pass.

  2. In some other areas meanwhile, they upgrade some rural roads mainly the US highways and some state highways into a 4-lane divided highway. Some are part of the High-priority corridors http://www.aaroads.com/high-priority/table.html
    while at some other locations, they add a passing lane when we climb a bluff or a mountainous area, maybe they could add some passing lanes in flatter areas as well

    Here in Quebec, PQ-175 who go thru the Laurentides reserve park linking Quebec city with Saguenay (amalgated cities of Chicoutimi,Jonquiere and LaBaie) is a 2-lanes highway with some passing lanes who’s currently upgraded into a 4-lanes divided highway. There some pictures at http://www.mtq.gouv.qc.ca/portal/page/portal/grands_projets/trouver_grand_projet/axe_routier_73_175#visuels

  3. Add a center passing lane.

    Swedes figured it out. Build a three lane road .. and every, say, 4 miles you swich which side has the 2-lane privilege.

    It is simple and efficient and requires no 2-lane passing.

    But alas – as usual, it is too outlandish to work in the US … after all Sweden only has been testing it for 40 years – there is no telling how it would work in the US – if at all!!

  4. The center passing lane is an ideal solution, but with many roads barely maintained with just two lanes, the dream of adding a consistent third lane (or even sporadic one) is little more than a pipe dream at this point.

    For an example of what I’m talking about, refer to I-476, the Blue Route, in the Philadelphia area. It was originally proposed in 1929, construction began in 1967, and it was finally completed in 1991. The owners of the horse farms along my commute will, I’m sure, have little interest in giving up a dozen feet of their rights of way to make a wider, safer road.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_476#Mid-County_Expressway

  5. I am happy to see this closure. As a retired Transportation Engineer with over 35 years of service it has always been a point of contention with me that different standards for passing sight distances and stopping sight distances are different for Design purposes and in place highways.
    I effect the passing sight distance is nearly twice as long per standard if designing a new highway and laughably on existing two way two lane highways is much shorter. I effect the design is safer than when striping existing highways.
    One simply has to open Traffic Manuals for the State of California to see the surprising disparity.
    In effect, what is on the road and what is designed anew uses differing standards.
    After long and painful attempts to get this issue addressed by pointing out we are in effect building (striping) a mousetrap for passing travelers and inviting collisions by this shortened standard it fell on deaf ears with the simple answer given. We are following standards and we will not change under fear of legal liability.
    Secondly, when reviewing passing opportunities near a rural intersection it came to light that the treatment of prohibitive striping does not even involve the use of stopping sight distances based on an 85th percentile prevailing speed. The gratuitous duble striping at intersections is in place merely as a protection from tort than any actual safety concerns.
    It is perplexing to me that passing zones exist that do not satisfy safety standards on both engineered and inherited highway alignments.
    One of the explanations for this practice was explained to me in this way and I quote. Well if we did not stripe for passing opportunities they would do it illegally anyway. So in effect we allow drivers to pass simply to allow them to “legally” be drawn into unsafe passing maneuvers.
    Somehow that logic smacks of disinterest as to the safety of the two lane two way rural highways that predominate the most common roads inthe country still today.

    PS, the Californai Standards are based on and are nearly identical to Federal standards so that policy is not unique to California but is Nationwide.
    It is a sad paradox.

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