The rules of the road used to feel sacrosanct. They were taught as best-practice to the first drivers of our Interstate highway system. A driver’s education film produced in the 1960s by General Motors used a traffic helicopter to show the impacts of bad driving behavior in that relatively new context. One section focuses on the all-important idea of proper lane usage. “Here we can see how the slowpoke who lags behind the flow of traffic causes confusion,” says the narrator. “He delays and irritates other drivers. If he could see himself as others see him, the slow driver would move over where he belongs. In the lane reserved for slower traffic.”
Today the situation appears different. Lane usage seems up for grabs. One clear sign of this is the number of states passing so-called “slow-poke” laws to prevent people from cruising in the left-hand lane, normally reserved for passing. It used to be a cultural norm reinforced through driver’s education, hectoring parents and a quick flash of the high-beams from an impatient motorist. Now it’s being enforced by legal means.
Laws vary widely depending on where you’re driving. “Each state is a kingdom unto itself,” Dr. Lidia Kostyniuk, a research scientist in the Behavioral Sciences Group of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute told Ipsos.
Whether they are legal or cultural, rules about lane usage are practical. “Keeping the left lane for passing will make traffic more uniform and safer,” she said.
To put some data behind the idea that somehow lane usage rules are not universally followed, Ipsos surveyed 1,006 adults and asked them about the rules of the road.
What the data says about lane usage
The good news is that most of us seem to at least know the rules. About seven in ten Seniors (aged 55 and older) agree that the far-left lane is for passing, not cruising. That’s the law now in states like Texas, Tennessee and Colorado. About six in ten from younger demographics also agree that the left lane serves a definite purpose.
The bad news is that fewer actually follow the rules. A majority of those who agree (60.6%) report cruising in the left lane at least occasionally. That probably leads to the majority who think that too many people cruise in the left lane, and an even larger cohort (63%) who think too many speed in the left lane.
Drivers in the Millennial generation, those aged 18-34, tend to follow the rules of the road less than their older counterparts. This takes a variety of forms.
About three in ten Millennials “often” cruise in the left lane on highways. Only 16% of seniors (aged 55 and older) say they do this often. Millennials are also four times as likely as seniors to say they pass cars on the right (20% vs. 5%), which is outlawed in even more states. Respondents aged 35-54, who would be the Generation X and younger Baby Boomers, fell in between the Millennials and Seniors for most questions.
For Tennessee state Representative Dan Howell, who sponsored his state’s newly-enacted “slowpoke” law safety is a key benefit of laws like these. He is against cruising in the left lane, even for people going over the speed limit. Failing to yield to a faster driver can cause frustration, road rage and slow up the flow of traffic overall. “This is not about speed,” he told Ipsos, “It’s about congestion that creates accidents.”
He introduced the bill as the “culmination of a growing frustration” with left-lane cruisers during his commute from his district in exurban Chattanooga to the capitol in Nashville. A constituent told him about a similar law in Texas. He looked into and wanted to implement something similar in his state. “It will take some time to do the culture change. In Texas, it took a few months of writing tickets for people to catch on,” he said, adding that this isn’t about raising revenue for Tennessee.
Changing culture about changing lanes
There’s a lot of culture that needs changing. Nearly one in five Millennials say they often engage in the road-rage inducing practice of “slowing down to annoy or educate people who want them to move over.” Half do it at least occasionally, as do three in ten 35-54-year-olds. Younger drivers are twice as likely as seniors to say that they don’t feel obligated to change lanes to let others pass.
Dr. Kostyniuk says that some age effects are consistent, in other words today’s seniors would have reported similar results when they were under 30. Drivers aged 18-25 are riskier and more likely to have fatal crashes, she said, “That hasn’t changed.” But she acknowledges changing attitudes and new ways that technology and distracted driving are impacting safety, congestion and driving habits. She told Ipsos about how she was discussing distracted driving with one of her classes. “The students seem shocked that this was even an issue.”
“There’s a hazy norm and the enforcement is not there,” Tom Vanderbilt, author of of the best-selling book, “Traffic,” told GenPop. “People are left on their own to make up what they think is right and that often differing point of view. It’s the same thing with merging behavior in construction zones.”
It only takes a few bad drivers to make an over-sized impact on traffic. If Millennials are demonstrating disruptive driving behaviors that is going to have a noticeable difference in traffic flow because they are the age group most likely to say they drive on highways. This runs contrary to the public perception that Millennials don’t drive much. Nearly three quarters said they drive on highways daily or several times a week – significantly higher than the other age groups. They are also the group most likely to enjoy highway driving.
This post has talked a lot about generational driving differences. That’s because in our study we found very few differences by any other measure. Across race, gender, region and income level it was hard to decipher a major trend. Those who said they were frequent speeders tended to be more likely to engage in other risky or disruptive driving, but that’s not too surprising.
Finally, our study showed a definite “Lake Woebegone” effect. This often-observed tendency of humans to overstate their abilities is named for the famous fictional town created by radio host Garrison Keillor, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
We asked each respondent if they consider themselves an above-average driver. Eight in ten said yes, they were above average.
Matt Carmichael contributed to this report.