Keeping Right?

Some years ago a surgeon told me about a time when he rushed from his home to a hospital to perform an emergency surgery. On his way he encountered a driver blocking the left lane who would not move to the right to let him get by. The highway was completely clear as far ahead as he could see. He estimated he was delayed in getting to the hospital by several minutes. The patient did not survive and the surgeon was unsure if his getting there sooner would have made a difference.

After hearing this story, I began collecting data and anecdotes of similar situations. I expected to hear a lot of stories from doctors similarly delayed, but I didn’t. Indeed, I heard of only one other, a pediatric surgeon and one of a very few who can perform some procedures. Similar to above, she was unsure what impact the delay had.

Most of us would likely consider these legitimate or at least very understandable reasons for driving a bit fast; being late for a date, not so much. Then again, one of my nieces once told me that any guy who doesn’t have his act together enough to leave on time and not have to rush isn’t someone she wants to be with anyway. Ouch!

Along with the doctors above here are the top five reasons to speed I found in my queries:

  • Needing a restroom break: I can drive the speed limit and pee in my pants, or drive a little faster and maybe make it. What would you do? (BTW, most cops have heard this excuse. And occasionally there’s been supporting evidence.)
  • Trying to get themselves to a hospital: One example would be a guy passing a kidney stone. Officially, we should pull over and call for an ambulance, but in reality how many of us, when a couple of miles from the hospital, are going to do that?
  • Getting one’s pregnant wife to the hospital.
  • Going to a hospital when a spouse, child, or parent was in the emergency room and sometimes trying to get there before they died.

That last one is the one I think about the most. Legitimate? Depends on who you ask and how obtuse you want to be. Some cops tell me that there is no excuse for speeding and that this will just lead to one more death.

Reality isn’t so cut and dried. Almost any of us, upon receiving a call that our child was in a hospital emergency room, like after they’d been hit by an errant driver, would likely not be paying too much attention to the speed limit. (Of course, we don’t adhere to the speed limits very well anyway.) Listening to people’s stories about their trying to get to a hospital quickly were heartbreaking.

This is even more understandable for those trying to make it to the hospital before their child or spouse dies. This was somewhat the case of Ryan Moats who was stopped by a cop at the entrance to a hospital parking lot. He explained to the cop that he and his wife were trying to see his wife’s mother before she died. The cop accused them of lying and wouldn’t let them go. Ryan’s wife, against the cop’s command, ran in to the hospital. Ryan waited and arrived 15 minutes later—about 5 minutes after his mother-in-law and according to everyone who knew them, his adopted mother, had died.

Dangerous? Hard to say. If speed itself (on a motorway) was that dangerous then we’d likely not have many Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Italians, or a few others left on this earth. Weaving in and out of traffic to get around left lane vigilantes is likely much more dangerous. Not to mention the risk of enraging someone who may already be on their emotional edge.

Reality? About 99% of the time, the person behind you in the left lane flashing their lights is someone simply late to work. Maybe someone who needs a restroom. Unlikely someone rushing to the hospital before their wife dies. Do you know though? Even if you’ve seen them doing this before, is this the third time their husband has been rushed to the hospital after a heart attack?

Mental Case


I’ve often wondered about the mental state of those in cars around me while I’m riding my bicycle. Are they normal?

I also wonder about people’s mental state (and for that matter, mine).

Every year numerous people are killed because they antagonized someone—something we seem quite in love with doing in the U.S. Someone comes up behind us in the left lane, we can easily move over, but instead we slow down. Or someone flashes their lights at us to let us know they want to get by and we hit our brakes. A trucker blocks us in the left lane and once we get by we slow down to force them to downshift. All of these to ‘teach someone a lesson’.

We are a mature lot, aren’t we?

In June 2007, I’d written a commentary for the Strib about this. Two days after it was published, a teen was killed and another critically injured about a mile from my house.

“It appears that the Jeep was going southbound in the left lane,” Knippenberg said. “The Audi comes up behind the Jeep. The Jeep taps his brakes. The Audi backs off.

“The Audi then catches back up to the Jeep. The Jeep taps its brakes again. The Audi again backs off. The Audi goes to the right lane, passes the Jeep, comes back to the left lane, and at this point slows.”

Troopers want to know why.

“Was it to get back at the Jeep for tapping its brakes? Was it to avoid something in the road? Was it for some other unknown reason?” Knippenberg said.

“The driver of the Jeep took evasive maneuvers by braking hard and swerving to the left, from the left lane, towards the median.”

The Jeep overcorrected and shot to the right, crossed two lanes and drove along the guard rail, possibly hitting it. The Jeep then veered and rolled across both lanes.

(On a side note, the above description really irritates me. Jeeps don’t tap their brakes, Audi’s don’t slow down, and cars don’t kill people. Drivers do.)

From my conversations with the cops who investigated this crash, both drivers had numerous opportunities to avoid it.

  • Had the Jeep driver not been in the left lane to begin with.
  • Had the Jeep driver moved to the right lane when the Audi first approached from behind.
  • Had the Audi driver backed off and waited a bit more patiently.
  • Had the Audio driver not brake-checked the Jeep.
  • Had the teens been wearing seatbelts.
  • Had the teens been in a vehicle safer than a Jeep.

What was the mental state of the Audi driver and why? Even someone who is usually calm can snap. How often are they someone who is otherwise quite mature but just caught their spouse in bed with a friend? Or were fired from their job? They’re exceptionally angry and perhaps driving really fast. Will blocking them help anyone? Or just make them angrier and likely to do something stupid that harms a lot of people?

Their mental state doesn’t excuse their actions. But if we’re dead, I don’t know how much that matters.


Who among us hasn’t found ourselves late to a job interview or for dinner to meet our potential in-laws? Or trying to get to a hospital before our child dies.

It would be best if everyone always drove the speed limit, but I’ll not hold my breath. We in the U.S. don’t obey laws, we obey our beliefs and desires. Law obedience happens when the laws just happen to intersect with our beliefs and convenience.

We need to build a cooperative environment rather than a high conflict environment. We need an environment based on consideration for others, even if that might occasionally mean being considerate of jerks, rather than an environment based on our mature desire to antagonize others.

A bit of courtesy goes a long way and costs us nothing. And may save some lives.



Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN

41 thoughts on “Keeping Right?

  1. Jim

    I will admit to being one of those aggressive drivers in the left lane at times. Nothing aggravates me more than getting stuck behind a slowpoke driving 1 mph over the limit in the left lane on my morning commute on I-35E. MOVE OVER!

    I just get the sense some folks feel it’s their duty to police that wonderful 45mph section of roadway in St. Paul. Oh well. I should just slow down and enjoy the view on my way to work, right?

  2. James WardenJames Warden

    As a driver, I get aggravated when slow drivers block the left lane. But as a taxpayer, it seems hugely wasteful to have an entire lane specifically built with the intention of being used under capacity. This isn’t a big deal in metro cores because all lanes will be close to capacity at least twice a day. But in the outstate, it can meaning building more lanes than you theoretically need. Although there’s probably not the political will to limit most of our big roads this way, it’d be nice to see some recognition that the whole “move over” philosophy has a pretty hefty price tag.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The slow driver in the left lane is causing under-utilization of the right lane and thus under-utilization of the system as a whole. Total throughput is higher if traffic stays to the right except to pass.

      So, yeah, you’ve got it exactly backward. Not moving over is what leads to extra lanes and congestion.

      1. James WardenJames Warden

        I’m not talking about using lanes that are already built. I’m talking about making a decision to build the lanes in the first place. And I’m also not talking about utilization of our roads. I’m talking about utilization of our tax dollars. If/when we decide we have more infrastructure than we are willing to fund, left-hand passing lanes are an obvious candidate for places to scale back. We have huge swathes of four-lane rural interstate where half the lanes are used only moments at a time for overtaking slower-moving vehicles. Eliminating passing lanes or replacing them with occasional passing zones would have far less impact on our road system than cutting segments altogether or allowing them to return to gravel. When money gets tight, there will be a lot fewer places where we will be able to build lanes that operate so far under their capacity. Passing isn’t a “right.” It’s a luxury that we can only afford in the most productive places. As I noted above, extra lanes makes sense in metro areas because you’re going to be building the capacity for rush hour anyway.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          Agree with James here. Though I’m a co-founder of #slowdriving so I may be biased.

  3. Steven Prince

    Let’s call this what it is: Road Rage. A passive-aggressive form, but very dangerous just the same. How many times have we all seen a driver in the left lane perfectly pacing the cars in the right lane to prevent passing, with a bunch of drivers all following too close in the left lane because they want to pass? It’s a particularly dangerous form of self-righteousness.

    If you are driving in the left lane and see a car overtaking you, you should move over. Its not your job to prevent the car overtaking you from driving faster than you.

    Its to bad State Troopers don’t give tickets for this dangerous behavior.

      1. Matty LangMatty Lang

        Exactly. If I’m already speeding in the left lane with the cruise control set at the proper MN 5-10mph over the speed limit and diligently passing slower moving vehicles to the right I don’t think I need to go faster to make way for the self-righteous vehicle that’s speeding to a greater degree than I.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          What if the person behind you is a surgeon trying to get to an emergency surgery or a parent trying to get to a hospital before their child dies? 99 times out of 100 that won’t be the case, but do you know?

          1. Matty LangMatty Lang

            As you say those are long odds. If someone behind me gets aggressive while I’m steadily passing a line of cars in the right lane I would probably speed up a bit in an effort to get away for my own safety, but I’m not flooring the accelerator if a car approaches on the off chance that they are having a personal emergency.

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Walker: although it’s unfortunate this doctor was delayed, why on earth would he not just pass the left-lane motorist in the right lane? (I assume based on the context that there were at least two travel lanes in each direction.) Although it’s considered preferable to pass on the left, passing in the right lane is perfectly legal, as long as they’re both travel lanes (not a shoulder or right-turn-only lane).

    I sympathize with keeping right on rural freeways and 4-lane expressways, but I’ll admit I don’t get how the “keep to the right” behavior translates to urban freeways. On 10-lane 35W through South Minneapolis, is each lane supposed to be going slightly faster than the one to its right? What about when the freeway is congested?

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      If they could have I think they would. When the person in the left lane is driving the same speed as the person in the right lane then everyone behind is kind of stuck.

      Also, legal or not, passing on the right (undertaking or overtaking on the inside) is considerably more dangerous in left-hand drive cars. It has been outlawed in most developed countries except I think US, OZ, and parts of Canada.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      On super multilanes in Europe you will generally see lanes somewhat stratified by speed with slowest to the left and fastest to the right (or reverse in UK). Drivers are generally conscious of this and will move left or right so that they’re in the lane that most closely matches their speed.

      Italy is fascinating from this perspective because they will often drive on the line so that they can be prepared to move left or right. If they all did that though I’d think it’d kind of eliminate any benefit.

  5. John Reiher

    This problem has been around since the first car. People behind the wheel suddenly go from “Mister Walker” and become “Mister Wheeler”. Disney covered this in the Goofy short “Motor Mania”.

    And I remember a Laurel and Hardy silent movie that involved a lot of road rage. It’s nothing new.

  6. UrbanDoofus

    I try to get over whenever someone clearly wants to go faster than me in the left lane. Driving is a team sport and we should all strive to GTFO each other’s way so everyone can get where they need to go.

    However, there is a certain “lane defender” bs practice that seems to happen here. I’m not sure what that is, but it makes the left lane crucial at times.

  7. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten


    The girl in your story went to my high school, I made the same mistake of thinking she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, but was corrected by a classmate. Actually she was. The seatbelt held her in the car, while most of the other kids in the car seem to have actually been thrown from the vehicle, such that its rolling didn’t kill them. Samantha didn’t do anything wrong to die in that vehicle, but fate has a nasty way of biting your ass sometimes.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Thanks Joseph. I was going by the reports I’d read so there must have been a later update. It’s a tragic story and she’s stuck in my mind for the past eight years.

  8. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    If I’m going 1 MPH over the speed limit, and I’m slowly passing someone who’s going slower than me in the right lane, I’m properly using the left lane. Even if you’re behind me and would rather go faster.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      In the U.S. yes. In most of Europe (and Canada?) you’ll be tagged for that. If there are cars behind you then you are expected to speed up and get the job done.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        I refuse to go a more dangerous speed and disregard the lives of others who may not be in vehicles on my roadway in order to make life momentarily more convenient for the lawless motorists behind me. I’ll make it to the right when I can make it to the right.

        People drive far too fast. That needs to change.

  9. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Let’s remember that a speed limit is a speed limit. With the exception of the new law that allows for speeding while passing on two-lane highways (which is a mistake IMO) it is illegal to exceed that limit.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Very true. But how many people obey our speed limits? And stop signs, and stopping before turning right-on-red, and signaling, and stopping for people in a crossing, and …

      We need to build a safer environment not just say that xx is a safe speed. This seems a significant difference in U.S. and EU traffic engineers I’ve talked to. U.S. engineers (and AASHTO and NACTO) are quick to blame our high fatality and injury rates on people violating laws. Which is not untrue. EU engineers though accept that people will not always obey laws and design roads and regulations accordingly.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        That may be true as well. I’ll be the first to argue that we have ridiculously fast design speeds. But this article seems to be largely apologizing for the lawbreaking behavior of motorists.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Viewed from a moral perspective, you have a point.

          Viewed from literally any other perspective, going slow in the right lane is a bad idea. It’s certainly not safe or green or efficient or courteous. The congestion is causes creates support for building more capacity. The collisions (ha!) it causes put you and others at risk. Etc.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      That doesn’t make it (a) safe or (b) appropriate to block faster traffic on the freeway.

      In fact, doing so causes accidents and traffic jams.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Did you mean to say “collision” rather than “accident?”

        Also, what’s wrong with a good traffic jam?

          1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

            A good traffic jam is a proper feedback loop (though price is better) to encourage higher trip density and lower lane mile consumption.

              1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                It leads to more lanes because we are doing it wrong. We don’t recognize a feedback loop.

                It’s like when Chipotle does their free burrito promotions every now and then… they get long lines (traffic jams), but they don’t open new stores for the prospect of giving away burritos for free.

                Which also explains why we need proper pricing of freeway capacity (at least those of us who prefer price to queue as a way to apportion supply of lane capacity). Let’s say you get pizza twice a month, and it’s $20 a pizza. Do you think you’d get pizza more often if it was $0? Of course.

                1. Daniel Herriges

                  Matt, you’re completely right that the policy feedback loop is broken. Nonetheless, Adam’s right as far as the likely effect of traffic jams on policy (via its effect on people’s policy preferences) in the world we do have, not the world we wish we had. Your stance smacks of doing things a certain way to make a statement, and I question the value or efficacy of that, even if the statement you’re trying to make is correct as far as it goes. (In the case of not yielding the left line, you’re most certainly just pissing people off rather than causing them to think about anything differently.)

                  My view is that when I want to make a statement, I literally make one (by speaking or writing or showing up at a meeting or protest), and the rest of the time, simply not being blatantly hypocritical is enough for me.

                  I also question the implication in an earlier comment of yours that breaking a law is inherently immoral. I see no reason that would be the case. Laws are written by fallible legislators for often arbitrary or spurious reasons. Breaking major laws is usually immoral, yes, but not because they’re laws, simply because those laws are usually written to ban already-immoral things.

                  In the specific case of speeding, the posted speed limit directly influences my decision in one way only: my desire to avoid a ticket. Other than that, I base my speed on the design speed of the road, my evaluation of environmental hazards (pedestrians, obstacles, weather conditions, etc.), my moral obligation not to endanger others, and my desire not to endanger myself. I am never a reckless driver; in fact, I’m a quite conservative, occasionally overcautious, one. However, I find the conservative, cautious thing to do on a freeway is to match the speed of most of the traffic; given that my behavior will have minimal effect on that of other drivers, if I am going significantly faster or slower than them, I am making the road more dangerous for everyone. If I am angering or agitating them, I am making the road more dangerous for everyone. I don’t have statistics to back this up, but I strongly suspect driving the speed limit (let’s say 55) when 90% of other cars are going 65 or 70 is empirically NOT safer than matching the prevailing speed.

  10. Ben

    A lot of this comes down to proper driving etiquette. If you are not passing, move over. I admit, my number one reason for speeding is lack of enforcement. I go +5 almost everywhere, with the exception of residential areas and school zones, or anywhere that someone could suddenly pop out onto the road. My number two reason is peer pressure. When I am driving on 169, or what have you, if both lanes are going faster than I want to go, I tend to speed up and get over and slow down after the glut of traffic has passed. Since I do not know someones reason as to why they want to go so fast, the last thing they need me to do is add stress to their life at that moment. Often I say to myself, “Go ahead, your ticket awaits”. And if they are from out of state, “MN is looking for donations”.

  11. Tom

    If you don’t want people driving in the left lane at “only” the speed limit, then don’t design highways with so many left sided exits! I take 35E downtown south every day and need to take the left side exit to Lowertown. With all the construction, I have to get in the left lane when I can to make my exit. That may be all the way back at Hwy 36 or it could be closer. But when I see brake lights, I move into the left lane and if traffic speeds up later I am not moving back and forth since I might not get back in the left lane in time. If I am driving the speed limit and exiting left in a few miles I have just as much right to that lane as you. Same with 35E north thru downtown when you have to exit left to continue on north 35E at 94. Note that is different than a multi lane freeway like 494 or 694 where there are few left exits and there is no reason to be in the left lane.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Tom, great point. I was quite surprised by the existence of left side exits when I moved here (and ramp meters and ‘commons’ like 94/35E).

  12. Scott

    Our signage is part of the problem. “Slower Traffic Keep Right” is an idiotic sign. Slower than what? Than it should be? Than most traffic? Than all but that one crazy idiot? Slower than turtles? I drive faster than turtles, left lane must be okay.

    Most eastern states post: “Keep right except to pass.” That’s crystal clear. Are you actively passing? No, then get over. Even if you are doing 85, keep right unless you are passing.

    Lane striping of passing lanes is also stupid here. Vermont does it right. The stripes automatically guide you into the right lane when a passing lane appears, you need to cross the broken white line to get into the center passing lane.

  13. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    I’m late to the conversation, but I question the premise of this post. Vehicles passing each other is something we want to minimize on high speed roadways. Speed differentials are a problem, and designs, policies, or conventions that encourage or facilitate some vehicles going faster than others should be minimized. Allowing people to get around the occasional slow poke as a practical matter is one thing, but to encourage a system of people routinely passing each other all within a couple mph of each other and within a few mph of the speed limit is nuts. As others have said, in urban areas, the whole convention of left lanes used only for passing doesn’t really apply. Best case scenario is all lanes moving at the same speed.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      If vehicles passing each other is something we want to minimize, why is the preferred design (in rural environments, at least) providing continuous passing space in both directions? I just drove back from Wadena on TH 10, where most sections have been upgraded to four-lane divided expressway. A more recent example is TH 14 in southern MN, being upgraded section by section to four-lane divided expressway — an upgrade justified far more by improving safety than needed capacity.

      I get that passing on a divided expressway is much less dangerous than passing on an undivided two-lane. But if we wanted to eliminate passing in oncoming lanes and reduce passing going the same direction, why not use something like a 2+1 road?

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