Written by Gregory Monte.
I am pretty sure that everyone has at some point passed a car to the left on a four-lane road (two lanes in each direction with dotted white lines in between). But once you do this, how long are you allowed to stay in that left lane before you are required by law to move back to the right?
When you take a look at the motor vehicle statues that govern this behavior, you will find similar language in most state codes. Here are three examples:
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.”
If you want to know what your particular state has to say about keeping right except to pass, check out the pdf published by the law firm of Matthiesen, Wichert & Lehrer. All 50 states are summarized nicely in that document. Here is an interesting and informative quote:
“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.”
Clarification from a Pennsylvania Court
The situation in Pennsylvania and some other states is a bit more nuanced, because, in addition to the standard exception to keeping right (passing another vehicle), they allow use of the left lane in one other “tricky” situation: “When traveling at a speed greater than the traffic flow.”
I consider this “tricky” because, technically, you could continuously be “traveling at a speed greater than the traffic flow.” So, again, how long can you stay in the left lane before you are liable to get a ticket for violation of the “keep right” rule?
A Pennsylvania Superior Court decision from 2016 provides some insight and guidance:
“Trooper Straniere testified that he clocked Aina for over half of a mile going 75 miles per hour in a 70 miles per hour zone. Further, Trooper Straniere observed that Aina drove for over 2.5 miles in the left hand lane, despite light traffic and having multiple opportunities to cross into the right-hand lane. Trooper Straniere had probable cause to initiate a valid traffic stop as the un-contradicted evidence provides that he observed Aina violate the Vehicle code by speeding and failing to yield to the right lane.”
Although this is not definitive, it does suggest that if you get a ticket for failing to move back to the right lane and you were in that lane for less than 2 miles (give or take), you might have a defense. In addition, notice how the traffic conditions matter. If there is heavy traffic, you might be able to extend this two-mile rule even further.