Passing a Car in the Left Lane – An Important Clarification and Update.

Written by Gregory Monte.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how you could get a ticket for traveling in the left lane of a highway: A Traffic Ticket for Traveling in the Left Lane?

The point I made was that, in most states, you have a duty to keep right unless passing.  I quoted several statutes to illustrate this and I also provided a link to a great pdf which summarizes the laws in all 50 states about this requirement: Pdf published by the law firm of Matthiesen, Wichert & Lehrer.

Here is an interesting and informative quote from that pdf:

“A growing number of states now require drivers in the left lane to move to the right, even if they are driving at or exceeding the speed limit. The speed of their vehicle is irrelevant. There is a duty to keep right and use the left lane for passing only. This is the case in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.”


The Gray Area in the “Keep Right” Statutes

In that previous post I also discussed the gray area of these “keep right” statutes.  Namely, none of them specifically say how long you are allowed to stay in the left lane before you have to return to the right.  Notice that all three examples which I cite below say that you are only allowed to use the left lane while “overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction:”

Pennsylvania Title 75, Section 3313(d)“… all vehicles shall be driven in the right-hand lanes when available for traffic except when … overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction.”

California Vehicle Code Section 21650“… a vehicle shall be driven upon the right half of the roadway, except … When overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction.”

New York Article 25, Section 1120“a vehicle shall be driven upon the right half of the roadway except … When overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction.”

Why do I say this is a gray area?  Because a literal reading of these laws means that you have to keep on returning back to the right lane each and every time you pass a single car.  Notice that none of the statutes uses the plural term “vehicles.”  It doesn’t say “string of vehicles.” 

And what about if the “string of vehicles” has space in between each one so that you could technically pull back to the right after each one?  Do you have to constantly weave in and out of two lanes to comply with the law?


Clarification Provided by the Courts

Commonwealth v. Richards, Pa: Superior Court 2017 provides some clarification of this issue.  According to the opinion in this case, the defendant (Richards) traveled in the left lane for approximately 5 miles before he was pulled over by the Pennsylvania State Police:

“[Richards] was in the left-hand lane of the highway. The Troopers pulled out and began to follow [Richards]; by the time that they had pulled him over, they had traveled for five miles.”

Could he or should he have moved back to the right lane at any time during that long stretch of highway?

“[Richards] remained in the left lane with several vehicles in front of him, all of which appeared to be passing [other] vehicles, most notably a tractor-trailer truck, in the right-hand lane.”

Based on that above quote, we don’t know for sure, but it is likely that there were spaces between vehicles during that 5-mile stretch so Richards probably could have pulled back to the right.  In fact, the police officers claim not only that he had the opportunity to do so, he should have because he was driving slower than the flow of traffic:

“In this case, the Troopers testified that they observed Richards driving slower than the traffic in the right lane and that he could have moved into the right lane. However, the video shows Richards complying with the law the entire time and actually passing vehicles in the right lane as he traveled in the left lane.”

So how did it all end up?

Pretty well for Mr. Richards.  Quoting Commonwealth v. Slattery, 139 A.3d 221, 225 n.8 (Pa. Super. 2016), the judge in this case said:

“[a]lthough the Commonwealth’s position is that [Richards] had the opportunity to get into the right lane at several points, the statute does not mandate that he do so. Rather, the statute specifically allows for travel in the left lane when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction, or when traveling at a speed greater than the traffic flow. As . . . the evidence indicate[s] that [Richards] was doing exactly that …”

In my archives I have three separate categories for judges:

  • Judges Rule!
  • Judges Suck!
  • Judges Are Funny!

This particular post definitely fits in the Judges Rule! category.

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