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Restless Native

Ron Judd's take on Northwest people, places and events.

November 29, 2010 at 12:28 PM

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Anger over lane campers echoes all the way to Olympia

Posted by Ron Judd

Some good news for a change: An avalanche of reader responses to Sunday's column about Washington drivers' infurating left-lane freeway camping habit has been noticed by the Washington State Patrol, which says it has some ideas to better educate the public.

How ticked off is the average state motorist about the problem? The column drew a reader response greater than any single local topic I have ever addressed in a 25-year career. That tells you something. (The only greater volume of e-mail I've ever received came after a column I wrote at the 2010 Winter Olympics about NBC's refusal to air any of the Games live; the column was circulated around the country on the Internet.)

So, thanks to the hundreds of readers who responded to the piece, either via email or through the column's comment section. I probably won't have the time to get back to you individually, so consider this a group acknowledgment. (A special thanks to the minority of you who beautifully -- and predictably -- reinforced my point by passionately defending your right to park in the left lane in some sort of twisted, passive/aggressive vigilantism -- a topic I'll adress in a separate post shortly.)

The big response sends a strong message: Lane camping is a serious traffic-flow/safety issue, one that needs attention in Olympia. And in the process of responding, many of you raised legitimate follow-up questions, which I put this morning to the Washington State Patrol, and which Sgt. J.J. Gundermann was kind enough to respond to quickly:

Q) What about the HOV lane? Do I have to move right, into the "passing lane" for other traffic, if I'm driving the speed limit and someone comes racing up behind me?

A) No. The HOV lane is not considered the "far left" lane for normal traffic, because special rules apply. If you're driving the speed limit there and a following car wants to go faster, you could move right, if it was clear and safe to do so, as a courtesy. But you're not breaking the law by staying there. Of course, if you're well below the speed limit and traffic stacks up behind you, that's another matter: You could fall subject to the state's separate "impeding" statute, most often applied on a two-lane road, and be cited.

Q) Doesn't this lane-camping law, which requires you to move to the right even if you're traveling at the speed limit, but still blocking traffic flow, simply encourage speeding?

A) Absolutely not, Gundermann says.

"Some people have commented that this is like troopers saying it's OK to speed," he says. "That's not the point. The point is to get traffic moving smoothly. If you're safely getting by traffic (in the center or right lane) so you can move back to the right, we're not going to write speeding tickets for that."

Not even -- are you listening, lane campers? -- if that means briefly exceeding the speed limit, then moving safely right and dropping back to the limit, he adds.

Common sense dictates that it's sometimes necessary. For example, troopers routintely tell motorists that they shouldn't hang out in the shadow of semi trucks for more than a few seconds, because the trucks have many blind spots, and their drivers might not see you. Motorists in such a situation would be wise to get around the rig, even if that means briefly bumping over the speed limit while passing, then moving back right, he says.

A lane camper schlumping along in the left lane in those situations prevents other motorists from taking that action -- or makes them pass on the right, creating another unsafe situation.

"Nobody likes traffic flow better than troopers," Gundermann said. "We want traffic to move smoothly. If we can see that you're trying to assist with that, you're probably not going to get stopped." There's always the big "however," however: If you do it in an unsafe manner, at a ridiculous speed, obviously you're risking a ticket.

Some degree of common sense comes into play: If 15 cars are going slow in the center lane and you blow past the speed limit to pass them all, you're asking for a ticket. Use your head.

Q) Should I flash my lights to let a left-lane camper know he's in the way?

A) No. In fact, you could be cited. The practice, while commonplace in other parts of the world, is classified as aggressive driving in Washington state. Don't do it. Same with honking or other histrionics. It's hard, but you just have to take a deep breath and cope.

Q) Why can't the state do more to educate drivers about the law?

A) Budgets are an easy excuse, but Gundermann says the state is listening to feedback on this problem. Some existing educational programs might be shifted to address it. In fact, Gundermann is producing a series of "Good to Know" traffic-safety videos to be posted on YouTube, and the first one, based on the response to this article, might be devoted to left-lane blocking.

Q) What about enforcement? The ratio of tickets-per-pullover cited in the column, less than 10 percent, seems awfully low.

A) Gundermann says it's very possible many of the drivers pulled over for a left-lane violation were, in fact, cited for something else, or even arrested. Lane violations, for example, are often the cause cited by troopers to pull over an erratic driver who might then be arrested for suspicion of DUI or another offense. You can't assume that all those 10,000 drivers pulled over for a left-lane violation this year were simply let off the hook.

Beyond that, one of the WSP's most important roles is education, he says. Often, a driver pulled over for lane blocking might be a safe driver and good citizen who simply was not aware of the law. In those cases, troopers often decide that a stern warning is good enough.

There you go. Happy -- and safe -- travels.

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