Whatever Happened to Passing Zones?
By Chris Haak
Over 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.
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