Is there anything more frustrating than commuting into work in the morning and getting stuck behind someone traveling in the left lane of the highway while driving below the speed limit and the speed of the prevailing flow of traffic? It’s maddening! The other morning, as I encountered just such a situation, I began to wonder exactly what the laws were concerning travel in the middle and left lanes of the highway. I live in Kentucky but often travel into Ohio and Indiana, so I wondered how different the laws would be for each state and, like the good librarian I am, I decided to do some research.
Preliminary searches on Google (because yes, librarians Google things too) all seemed to reference the same chart from MIT from 2010 that indicated in the state of Ohio, as long as you are traveling the speed limit, you can travel in any lane you wish. That contradicted several things I had heard recently, so I decided to go straight to the source, and here is what I found.
Kentucky Revised Statute 189.340 states:
(6) Whenever any roadway has been divided into three (3) clearly marked lanes for
travel, the following additional rules shall apply:
(b) A vehicle shall not be driven in the center lane except when overtaking and
passing another vehicle where the roadway is clearly visible and the center
lane is clear of traffic within a safe distance, or in preparation for a left turn or
where a center lane is at the time allocated exclusively to traffic moving in the
direction in which the vehicle is proceeding and is signposted to give notice of
the allocation; and
(c) Official signs may be erected directing slow-moving traffic to use a
designated lane or allocating specified lanes to traffic moving in the same
direction and operators of vehicles shall obey the directions of such signs.
All right, clear enough. In Kentucky, the rule is keep right except to pass and there are frequently signs posted that indicate as much.
Indiana Code 9-21-5-9 goes much farther. It states:
Sec. 9. (a) A vehicle that travels at a speed less than the established maximum shall travel in the right lanes to provide for better flow of traffic on the interstate highways.
And for good measure:
Except as provided in subsection (c), a person who knows, or should reasonably know, that another vehicle is overtaking from the rear the vehicle that the person is operating may not continue to operate the vehicle in the left most lane.
You can be fined up to $500 for misuse of the “fast lane” in Indiana. It can also be considered probable cause for a traffic stop. Indiana doesn’t mess around.
So what about Ohio?
In 1975, Ohio’s traffic laws changed perceptibly. ORC 4511.33 then stated:
(B) Upon a roadway which is divided into three lanes a vehicle or trackless trolley shall not be driven in the center lane except when overtaking and passing another vehicle or trackless trolley where the roadway is clearly visible and such center lane is clear of traffic…
ORC 4511.33 now states:
(2) Upon a roadway which is divided into three lanes and provides for two-way movement of traffic, a vehicle or trackless trolley shall not be driven in the center lane except when overtaking and passing another vehicle or trackless trolley where the roadway is clearly visible and such center lane is clear of traffic [emphasis added]
The Legislative Service Commission says:
The new version of the section applies the rules for driving in marked lanes to roadways having two or more, rather than three or more, marked lanes. The prohibition against driving in the center lane of a three-lane roadway except under certain conditions is retained but restated so that it is clear it applies only when such roadways are used by two-way traffic… (1975 Ohio Legis. Serv.)
So this law no longer applies to my morning commute where all three lanes are traveling in the same direction.
On the other hand, Ohio’s traffic law 4511.25 states:
(B)(1) Upon all roadways any vehicle or trackless trolley proceeding at less than the prevailing and lawful speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for traffic, and far enough to the right to allow passing by faster vehicles if such passing is safe and reasonable [emphasis added]
The Legislative Service Commission notes:
[This] new version of section 4511.25 retains the former requirement that vehicles generally be driven on the right half of a roadway, but includes an additional requirement that vehicles moving at less than normal traffic speeds be driven in the right-hand lane or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except when passing or preparing for a left turn. (1975 Ohio Legis. Serv.)
The law clearly includes the word “prevailing” when describing speed. This can also be summed up with the phrase “follow the flow of traffic”.
7 Ohio Jur. 3d Automobiles and Other Vehicles § 316 has this to say, citing State v. Huth, 133 Ohio App. 3d 261, 727 N.E.2d 931 (7th Dist. Mahoning County 1999)
A motorist's conviction for improper lane usage was supported by evidence that the motorist had driven for three and one-half miles in the left lane of a freeway at a speed of 60 to 65 miles per hour, which was less than the normal speed of traffic at that time and place, without justification, and that while there was no vehicle in the right lane, vehicles were backed up in the left lane because they did not want to pass the motorist on the right.
So there you have it. All three states very clearly prefer a “keep right except to pass” model and failing to heed that preference can really cost you. Not to mention it’s just good driving manners.