Speed Up, Slowpoke, or Get a Ticket


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Traffic on Interstate 80 in San Francisco last year.

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Slowpokes, beware: More states are cracking down on drivers who dawdle in the left lane.

While all states require slow-moving vehicles to keep to the right, laws that went into effect in Tennessee this year, Indiana last year, Georgia in 2014 and Florida and New Jersey in 2013 are setting harsher penalties for dawdling drivers.

The new penalties, proponents say, are aimed at reducing congestion, frustration and accidents.

Tennessee is one of the latest states to impose harsher punishments, often also called “slowpoke” or “left-lane courtesy” laws. As of the beginning of this month, slow drivers there face a $50 fine for camping out in the left lane.

“It’s not the speed on the highway that kills as much the weaving in and out of traffic, which is caused by people who impede the flow of traffic,” the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Dan Howell, told The Chattanooga Times Free Press earlier this year.

Since a similar law went into effect in Indiana a year ago, the state police reported issuing 109 tickets and 1,535 warnings, according to WISH-TV, a local news station. That law allows a maximum fine of $500 for unreasonably slow drivers who block the left lane.

Proponents of the laws say speeding is still a major concern. The so-called slowpoke laws are not aimed at penalizing slower drivers for simply using the left lane, but rather discouraging them from staying there.

“The purpose of this law is for those rude, inconsiderate drivers who think they own the left lane,” Capt. David Bursten of the Indiana State Police told WISH-TV.

The National Motorists Association, a grassroots group that lobbies for safer traffic laws, blames the plague of left-lane laggards on the national speed limit imposed in the 1970s.

In response to oil shortages, Congress passed a law in 1973 withholding funds from states that did not adopt a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, which they all did within months, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. While 55 m.p.h. was already the norm in many urban areas, states had previously allowed drivers on rural roads to go as fast as 65 to 75 m.p.h.

The motorists’ association argued that this change emboldened slow drivers who began enjoying more of the road than before as they found the new limits more in line with their slow speeds. That shift eroded previously held norms that encouraged slow drivers to keep right.

The 55 m.p.h. limit “caused a total breakdown in lane courtesy,” the group wrote in a fact sheet on the issue.

Congress ultimately allowed states in 1987 to raise the limit to 65 m.p.h. and repealed the national limit altogether in 1995. Rural speed limits are now at or above 70 m.p.h. in two-thirds of states, according to the insurance institute.

Though it was repealed decades ago, the national speed limit left lasting damage, the motorists’ association argues. The unwritten rules of the road were erased, with slow drivers feeling at home in any lane.

“This process was reinforced for more than two decades,” the group says, “and it left an impression on a whole generation of new drivers.”

The group, along with other proponents of lane courtesy laws, argues that keeping slow drivers out of the left lane reduces accidents caused by faster drivers switching lanes to try to pass in the right lane.

Whether or not that is the case, accidents persist as a problem nationwide: The rate of motor vehicle crash deaths in the United States is more than twice the average of other high-income countries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Wednesday.

While the C.D.C. did not address slowpoke drivers, it did offer some simple advice for reducing accidents: Wear seatbelts, drive sober and without distractions and, of course, obey the speed limit.

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