Image: Google Maps

I’m starting to think that it might, but only under certain circumstances. Here’s why.

The state of Oklahoma has been on a roll lately, ticketing left-lane campers and others who violate rules concerning center lane usage, thanks to legislation introduced in 2014. Unfortunately, the law contains some hazy language regarding what kind of center lane is being addressed.

It’s always interesting to see how other states handle traffic laws. They’re mostly the same, but there are some small differences that can catch you off-guard when travelling. Nobody wants to get ticketed in one state for doing what another state has deemed acceptable. But as fascinating and useful as these differences can be, it’s obviously much more important to be familiar with the state in which you drive the most.

I’d already made myself familiar with my state’s rules regarding left lane usage, but I never really looked at the actual wording when it comes to center turn lanes. For the longest time, I just assumed (as many do) that a center turn lane was ONLY for turning (or for emergency use, such as maneuvering around, say, a fallen tree). Never did I consider that it was a legitimate option for overtaking a slower vehicle.

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Oklahoma’s legislation mentions passing as one of the legal uses for the center lane, which blew my mind. This inspired me to take a closer look at traffic laws concerning my home state of Michigan. Here’s what I found:

MLive (especially their fantastic Ask-A-Trooper column) has proven to be a great source for examining questions like this, containing references (and links!) to the actual law on the books, as well as police officer interpretation to help clarify things. And this topic was no exception.

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The MLive article explores parts of the Michigan Vehicle Code pertaining to overtaking on a two-way road, quoting MCL 257.638 and 257.642 (emphasis added).

Upon a roadway that is divided into 3 lanes and provides for 2-way movement of traffic, a vehicle shall not be operated in the center lane except when overtaking and passing another vehicle traveling in the same direction, when the center lane is clear of traffic within a safe distance, or in preparation for a left turn, or where the center lane is at the time allocated exclusively to traffic moving in the same direction the vehicle is proceeding and the allocation is designated by official traffic control devices.

The article goes on to quote a Michigan State Police representative, who attempts to clarify that the “third lane” in question is not a reference to a center “turn” lane, but rather a temporary passing lane, the kind seen on lonely stretches of road where slow, heavy trucks become burdensome to other traffic as they negotiate hills.

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The lane markings in such areas support this explanation, but they don’t do anything to debunk the supposed “myth” that center “turn” lanes can be used for passing. So let’s read that statute again, one step at a time:

“Upon a roadway that is divided into 3 lanes and provides for 2-way movement of traffic” Ok, so we’re not talking about the 3 forward lanes one one side of an interstate here. This is a road that has a grand total of 3 lanes, with at least one lane dedicated for travel in either direction.

“a vehicle shall not be operated in the center lane” Under normal circumstances, the center lane in question is “no man’s land”. Anyone who enters the center lane must be leaving it soon.

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“except when overtaking and passing another vehicle traveling in the same direction, when the center lane is clear of traffic within a safe distance” This is the first exception. Passing is an acceptable use for this center lane, but only if it can be done safely.

“or in preparation for a left turn” This is the second exception. Pretty self-explanatory. Of course you’d want to turn left from the left-most lane available for forward traffic. We’re not doing hook turns here.

“or where the center lane is at the time allocated exclusively to traffic moving in the same direction the vehicle is proceeding and the allocation is designated by official traffic control devices.” This is the third exception. In this case, the center lane is clearly marked as a secondary forward lane, available only for use by traffic moving in that one direction.

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To say that the “third lane” in question is one of these temporary passing lanes, appears to be a direct reference to that third exception. This exception is not phrased as an exception to the legality of using a center turn lane for passing. Rather, the “or” represents that it’s another exception to the rule of “a vehicle shall not be operated in the center lane”.

The MLive piece also offers another interpretation, presented by a reader. And this one seems to explain the proper use of a center “turn” lane in a way that fits the rest of the statute better than the MSP rep’s explanation. He suggests that the center “turn” lane can be used for passing, but only in less-densely-populated rural areas.

Image: Google Maps

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He draws our attention to 2 separate three-lane roadways in Grandville, Michigan, each having dedicated center turn lanes for use by traffic in either direction. This section of Prairie Street is a curbed residential street rated at 25 mph. This section of 8th Avenue, on the other hand, is a rural road with wide shoulders (NOT a valid place for passing on the right, BTW). 8th Avenue is at this point unmarked by any posted speed limit (thereby falling under Michigan’s “basic speed law”, where the “general speed limit” would be 55 mph).

It’s not hard to tell which one of these would classify as rural and which one is residential, but both roadways have 3 lanes of travel, and both center lanes are outlined with the same road markings. Without clearer definitions of “residential” and “rural”, how do you tell when passing is allowed and when it isn’t? What about roads that fall somewhere in-between these extremes?

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The difference lies not in the posted speed limit, nor in the presence of a shoulder. In fact, we don’t even have to argue over how to classify a street as “residential” or “rural”. The difference lies in whether or not there is any signage to prohibit passing, which might otherwise be totally legal.

MCL 257.642 doesn’t say anything about limiting passing to rural streets only. But it does mention that “regardless of the center of the roadway”, “official traffic control devices” (signs) may be in place to override what we think we know about the road surface markings. Indeed, the Prairie Street example includes explicit “CENTER LANE ↳ ↰ ONLY” signs. Perhaps those signs are not just a redundancy to tell you what the road markings already have to say about the center lane after all. Perhaps they’re there to tell you when that lane is for turning ONLY. This also explains why these signs are so rare in rural areas, yet much more common in residential ones.

But it’s also important to note that there are times when the center lane markings change, affecting its proper usage. The combination solid/broken lines might become a solid double-yellow on one side, and a solid white line on the other, indicating a dedicated turn lane for an intersection. Not a great place for passing.

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Of course, there are other restrictions that affect the legality of passing wherever the target lane may be. State law still prohibits speeding, even during overtaking maneuvers, which means that the vehicle in front has to be going appreciably slow in order to make a fully legal pass within a reasonable distance. And then there are also weather concerns, where sometimes it’s just too risky to use a snow-covered lane that hasn’t been plowed yet... Lots of things to take into account.

And there’s a chance that -even if this is legal- an officer with a less-than-complete understanding of the law might pull you over anyway. You might be able to fight that ticket, and you might even talk your way out of getting the citation, but will you have saved yourself any travel time by passing that slow car if you get stopped by a cop soon afterward? Maybe, maybe not.

Have I overlooked anything? What about your state/province? Does your state allow passing in the center lane?