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When can you legally drive in the left lane in Washington?

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jun 03, 2019 | 0 Comments

By law, you are not supposed to drive continuously in the left hand lane. As you probably first learned in your driver's ed course, the right lane is the “travel lane,” and the left lane is the “passing lane.”

Of course, in the real world, that isn't always the case, and on large portions of I-5 during rush-hour traffic in downtown Seattle, that's rarely the case. Most of us probably drive with a single-minded purpose: “if there's a faster lane, I'm taking it.”

Maybe that's what Steven Thibert was thinking one morning in July 2013 when he was speeding westbound on Interstate 82 in Benton County. Or maybe he wasn't thinking very clearly at all, because he ended up getting arrested for DUI.

Later on, Thibert appealed his conviction. The main issue in State v. Thibert (a case from April 2018) was how to interpret RCW 46.61.100, the law that discusses when you can drive in the left lane. Under the law (as you probably guessed), drivers can't continuously travel in the left lane on a roadway having two or more lanes of travel moving in the same direction.

There are four exceptions, however: (1) you're passing another vehicle; (2) you're traveling at a speed greater than the traffic flow; (3) your moving left to allow traffic to merge; and (4) you're preparing to turn left at an intersection or exit, or you're turning into a private driveway or onto a private road.

Pretty straightforward, right? All these exceptions seem to make sense. Thibert driving doesn't meet any of these exceptions, so he should lose.

Not so fast, Thibert argued. Look at subsection (4) of the statute: “It is a traffic violation to drive continuously in the left lane of a multilane roadway when it impedes the flow of other traffic.”  To summarize Thibert's argument. “I wasn't impeding the flow of traffic, so it doesn't matter whether I actually met one of those four exceptions.”

 Interesting. Maybe Thibert has a point?

Not so fast, the Court of Appeals ruled. You're forgetting RCW 46.63.020, which says that failing “to perform any act required or the performance of any act prohibited by this title … is designated as a traffic infraction.”

Translated into normal English: you have to comply with every single section and subsection of the Washington traffic code.

Thibert also raised another argument: Subsections (2) (the section dealing with the exceptions) and subsection (4) are irreconcilable because they cancel each other out. Therefore, they can't be harmonized.

Wrong again, the Court said. A driver driving continuously in the left lane may be obstructing traffic. But a driver may also be violating the law by taking advantage of one of the four above-referenced “exceptions” that the driver is impeding traffic.

The Court could have explained this point a little better, so let me try. Under the law, you can in theory drive in the left hand lane for a period of time if you're travelling faster than normal traffic.

Of course, as anyone who has spent any time in Seattle rush-hour traffic can tell you, drivers going faster than everybody else are those drivers constantly riding the brake, weaving in and out of lanes, and always seem to be on the verge of causing an accident.

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.


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