A recent state appeals court case clarifies when drivers can and can’t legally use the left lane. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press file photo)

A recent state appeals court case clarifies when drivers can and can’t legally use the left lane. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: Verdict’s in on left-lane camping; move over

A state appeals court has clarified that left-lane dawdling on highways is a traffic infraction.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Among landmark legal cases, it won’t compare to Marbury v. Madison, Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board of Education, but drivers in Washington state can celebrate the ruling of a state appellate court in State v. Thibert.

A three-judge panel for the state Court of Appeals in Spokane weighed in last month on the scourge of the highway, left-lane campers. Its ruling: Knock it off and move over.

OK, not in those words, but the court has clarified state law regarding when it’s legal to travel in the left lane and when drivers need to move over. The campers, not to be confused with those in tents and RVs, are drivers who — even after passing slower traffic — continue driving in the far-left lane regardless of whether there’s someone behind them or not.

The case involved a driver, Steven Thibert, whose Chevy Impala was pulled over by a Benton County Sheriff’s deputy on I-82. According to court documents, the deputy observed Thibert continuing in the left lane after having passed a slower vehicle, even though there were no other drivers in the right lane that would have kept him from moving over.

During the stop, the deputy caught the odor of fresh marijuana and noticed smoking paraphernalia hanging around Thibert’s neck. Thibert, the deputy said, explained he was a medical marijuana patient, had difficulty finishing sentences and “would sometimes stop speaking and just giggle.”

Thibert agreed to perform field sobriety tests, after which the deputy arrested him, took him to a hospital for a blood test and cited him for driving a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana.

Before Benton County District and Superior court judges, Thibert moved to suppress the traffic stop evidence, arguing that he shouldn’t have been pulled over because no one was behind him and he wasn’t impeding traffic. Driving in the left lane is a traffic violation only, Thibert claimed, when it impedes the flow of traffic.

Both Benton County courts ruled against Thibert, as did the appellate court. The appeals court decision held that state law is “plain on its face” that the primary use of the left lane of multilane highways is passing with exceptions for those traveling at a greater speed than traffic flow, when moving left to allow for merging traffic and when preparing for a left turn at an intersection or exit.

The ruling and state law don’t address drivers using the left lane during heavy traffic and commutes, but common sense easily applies in those instances. (As well, HOV and toll lanes are not considered passing lanes.) But in all other circumstances, the law and courts are clear: Once you’ve passed the vehicle on the right, move over.

Along with common courtesy, it’s a matter of traffic flow and safety.

Taking up residence in the left lane does impede traffic, which can lead to slower traffic flow and the frustration of other drivers and — in extreme cases — road rage. Absent road rage, drivers frustrated by left-lane campers are prone to tailgating, sudden and aggressive lane changes and distracted driving, making the road unsafe for everyone on the road. There is no justification for aggressive driving or road rage, but there also is no reason to risk inciting it in other drivers.

Expedia, in its most recent Road Rage Report, surveyed 1,000 adult drivers and found left-lane dawdling among the top five most irritating traffic behaviors, behind texting and tailgating.

The Washington State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies have been paying more attention to left-lane campers, including periodic emphasis patrols. In 2016, troopers wrote more than 16,450 citations for driving in the left lane, each with a fine of $136.

State Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, during the last two legislative sessions has proposed a bill that would increase the fine to $181, though the bill has not advanced. Other states, such as Oregon, have considered increasing their fines to $250. And the maximum fine in Indiana, where passing cars is a spectator sport, is $500.

We’ll also take the opportunity here to remind drivers to move over for approaching police, fire and emergency vehicles and on multilane highways to move over to keep a lane between drivers and vehicles for police, emergency, construction and tow trucks stopped on the shoulder.

And if you want to camp, find a park.

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