Bill puts left-lane hogs on notice

By Kyle Spurr, The Bulletin, @kylejspurr

A bill moving through the Legislature this session aims to crack down on drivers who hog the left lane.

In Oregon, most drivers can cruise along in the left lane on a multilane highway, whether they are passing another vehicle or not. The only restriction is on campers and trailers over 10,000 pounds that must drive in the right lane.

But Senate Bill 532 would prohibit all drivers from using the left lane except to pass. The law would only be enforced on highways with two or more lanes in the same direction and a speed limit at or above 55 mph.

Oregon would join at least five other states — Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey and Tennessee — that have stiffened penalties since 2013 for “slowpoke” driving or “left-lane camping.” Currently, lawmakers in Oklahoma and Virginia are also pursuing similar legislation.

Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, chief sponsor of the bill, said she regularly sees drivers refuse to give up their spot in the left lane, forcing other drivers to get frustrated, tailgate or pass on the right, which creates a dangerous driving condition.

“It’s always irritated me,” Burdick said. “You can see the cars lined up behind them. They have plenty of space to move over and decide not to. It’s very dangerous.”

Burdick said the bill targets major highways, including U.S. Highway 97 through Central Oregon. Exceptions to the law would be heavy traffic congestion, severe weather and poor road conditions.

“It’s a passing lane unless there is a reason to be using it as a travel lane,” Burdick said. “Some of your rural folks were concerned that sometimes in the winter the right lane is covered in ice.”

Burdick believes the bill gives Oregon State Police clear authority to ticket drivers who refuse to move into the right lane after passing. The maximum fine would be $250.

“I have every confidence in the state police that they will enforce this the way it is supposed to be enforced,” Burdick said.

Restrictions on driving in the left lane are needed, in part, because traffic fatalities are on the rise, Burdick said. Nationally, traffic fatalities rose 7.2 percent in 2015 over the year before, the largest increase in 50 years, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

OSP Capt. Bill Fugate testified in support of the bill Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Business and Transportation.

Fugate said the state police focus enforcement efforts on five driving behaviors that tend to lead to serious injury and fatal crashes — speed, occupant safety, lane usage, impaired driving and distracted driving. He noted traffic fatalities are trending higher than in past years, and that 495 people were killed last year on Oregon’s highways.

Fugate sees the bill as another way to keep the roads safe.

“It is my belief that this bill, if passed, would prevent some of those frustrated drivers from making poor driving decisions or engaging in road rage,” Fugate said at the hearing.

The downside, he said, is drivers may not use the left lane because they fear enforcement, which could clog travel in the right lane.

“It would be necessary to educate the public on the new law and expectations of their driving behavior,” Fugate said.

The bill passed the business and transportation committee Wednesday, and will go before the Senate later this month.

A similar bill addressing left-lane drivers failed in 2015. Burdick, who sponsored the previous bill, said it had some flaws that were fixed this time around. The previous bill set the maximum fine at $1,000 and the speed limit at 45 mph or higher. Lawmakers decided the fine was too high and the speed limit was too low.

Turning this bill into law has become a pet-project for Burdick, and one of her most popular bills. She is often asked about its progress, even when in meetings on other issues.

She pokes fun at other lawmakers who may question parts of the left-lane bill.

“I always joke with people that by not supporting this means you are a left-lane hog,” Burdick said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,

kspurr@bendbulletin.com

Stateline.org contributed to this story.

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