Bill Torpy at Large: Few drivers rush to obey Slowpoke Law

OK, fellow left-lane drivers, I know you’re concerned with your cellphones and your kids and the hundred other preoccupations that sap your attention. But, please, could you glance in the rearview mirror once in a while to notice those of us behind you on the interstates trying to get through?

Oh, you already know we’re back there? So you’re puttering along next to that 18-wheeler on purpose. You have become a self-imposed moral arbiter of how fast fellow travelers should go.

I thought that might be the case.

Two years ago, Georgia passed its Slowpoke Law, which says if cars start queuing up behind you, then you must move out of the left lane or get a ticket. That's even if you are at the speed limit.

According to the readers who fed the AJC’s Vent column for years, this was some important legislation. There are few things as aggravating as a slowpoke hogging the fast lane. An outraged Gwinnett County driver once summed it up: “Oh, give me a break. Take your moral high ground, and get out of the left lane. No one does the speed limit in the left lane. Idiots like you are the reason we have accidents. Go with the flow of traffic, or get off the highway.”

I’d concur with the sentiment. But the jury’s still out on whether this bit of vehicular common sense has sunk into the driving consciousness. Police have started an educational effort to change the habits of both the clueless and the purposeful lane blockers, writing both warnings and citations.

State Rep. Bill Hitchens, a Republican who spent three decades in state patrol and authored the Slowpoke Law, said he pushed for the law after a road rage incident in metro Atlanta where a driver shot into another car following a left lane dispute.

“I told other legislators that this is just the good manners your mama taught you,” he said. “It’s like walking down the sidewalk. If someone comes faster, then you move over to the side.”

Maybe the law is a bit personal; he sees a lot on the roads during frequent 240-mile drives from his home near Savannah to Atlanta.

What does he notice?

“A lot of people have no sense,” he said. “It’s easier to get a driver’s license in America than just about anywhere else.”

I got to thinking about this recently while driving to Chicago and back. It seemed like much of my time was spent in Indiana in the left lane stuck behind a Buick. I shouldn't pick on Hoosiers, those in Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia do much the same, even though Indiana and Tennessee have recently passed laws modeled after Georgia's.

I’m told drivers once abided by the Slower Traffic Keep Right rule.

The National Motorists Association, a lobbying group, says the 55-mph speed limit, imposed in the 1970s to save gas, turned American motorists into dawdlers. Before, drivers knew the left lane was “the passing lane” and got in and out of it as necessary. But the 55-mph law emboldened slowpokes to wander in whatever lane they chose.

The danger of such laggards is they clog the traffic’s relief valve, causing faster drivers to weave into other lanes in an attempt to speed ahead of the logjam.

“There’s a natural flow to traffic, which is the safest speed to drive, even if it’s a little faster than the speed limit,” said Shelia Dunn, spokeswoman for the National Motorists Association. “Congestion causes road rage and bad driving.”

There are studies that show that uneven speeds, meaning cars driving slower than the average speed of the group, can cause more havoc than those speeding.

Different departments are split on the law’s effectiveness — or even the need to write what is a discretion-laden ticket.

Georgia State Patrol troopers wrote more than 300 tickets in the first year. Cobb County is up about 50 percent, each month writing about 17 “impeding the flow of traffic” tickets, which include Slowpoke tickets. Gwinnett County, also known for its traffic, writes just a handful each month and the number is down slightly since the law went into effect.

The law also has left cops with some interesting dilemmas. State Patrol Capt. Mark Perry noted that the law says that those driving at the speed limit — or even a bit above — are supposed to move over if someone faster comes up from behind.

“If they are already breaking the law going 80 in a 70, and someone comes along behind at 85, which one would you have the priority to enforce?” he asked, apparently posing a rhetorical question because he didn’t answer his own query.

This law has political ramifications, too.

In 2005, Florida’s Legislature passed the “Road Rage Reduction Act,” which mandated that slowpokes, even those at the speed limit, get out of the way.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the bill, saying “it seeks to provide relief for those traveling at high rates of speed … at the expense of cautious and careful drivers.”

Bush could never read the voters well. If he did, he might be running against Hillary Clinton today.

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