You’ve heard this one before: Never pass on the right. It’s illegal. It’s unsafe. Well, not exactly. Here’s why...
Passing is designed to allow faster traffic to bypass slower traffic. This minimizes congestion brought about by slow-moving vehicles. Without this option, traffic flow would be decided by the slowest car.
Passing is an exception to the rule. The rule is to wait. As children we are taught the concept of waiting our turn in line. In the name of fairness, we wait in queue behind those who arrived first. But sometimes those ahead of us are slower, by necessity or by ignorance. Passing them is not always an option, but it is sometimes available as a legal & safe exception to waiting.
Always check your local laws first. I am referencing Michigan’s way of doing things, which may or may not match the laws in your area. If you are in a drive-left country, you probably pass on the right rather frequently. Use common sense and adjust as necessary.
One Forward Lane
A two-lane road has one lane going in either direction. Passing on the right here means driving on the shoulder. Here on the shoulder you will often find compromised traction, random obstacles, or other hazards hiding in tall grass. This is where the concept of no right-side passing originates. It means no passing on the shoulder, sidewalk, lawn, or median.
The only option for passing is the oncoming lane. And even then, it is only an option in the absence of oncoming traffic. It’s not a question of “well, how else am I going to pass?”. It’s a question of “do I need to continue waiting, or is passing an option for me here?”. If lane markings, road conditions, visibility, and traffic allow, this is where the overtaking happens.
Two Forward Lanes
On a road/highway with 2 forward lanes, things get easier. We no longer have to dodge oncoming cars to execute an overtake. In fact, it’s no longer an option. In light traffic, slower vehicles can occupy the right lane while the rest of us can momentarily use the left one to overtake them.
But every once in a while, we do encounter the odd vehicle moving under the speed limit in the left lane. Can we use the right lane to pass?
Possibly! The driver may have merged to the left to avoid some random obstruction in the right lane. But they also might be turning left soon. It’s worth checking to see if the right lane is clear for passing. If so, we are under no legal obligation to stay in the left lane, stuck behind the slow-driven vehicle. Besides, what are we doing in the left lane in this situation anyway? We need to get back over where we belong.
Three+ Forward Lanes
In Michigan, the presence of three or more forward lanes changes things even further. A roadway with this many lanes was built for handling large amounts of traffic, and you are likely to encounter a wider variety of vehicles and driving styles. Merging becomes a more frequent maneuver here, and cooperation is no less important.
Many drivers, including truckers, have a tendency to favor the middle lane. This is to avoid conflict with merging traffic at interchanges, while keeping the left lane open for passing. But what if the two left lanes slow down, and the right lane is the only clear one? Can you use it to pass?
Possibly! Again, careful judgement is required to determine if this will work. Even if it’s not obstructed ahead, drivers still might be making room for merging traffic from an on-ramp. Passing on the right is legal, but the attempt could be disadvantageous if traffic decides to merge into that lane ahead of you.
There are many strange situations that we encounter on the road. The purpose of this post is not to address all the “what ifs”. The point is that passing on the right can be a valid maneuver, if conducted with safety and courtesy.
Again, check your local laws to verify what your options are. Some areas have unique regulations that be real game-changers. Drive your best and keep an eye on those blind spots!