Commentary: Left lane restriction bill is unwise

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

A proposal by Delaware State Senator Bryan Townsend (D-Newark/Bear) to force drivers within the state to stay in the right lane under most circumstances, SB 185, is well-intended but has both practical and constitutional challenges.

On the one hand, state governments possesses the authority pursuant to law to enact restrictions on their roads. Relevant to the present idea, 38 states already have laws on the books preventing lingering in the left lane; 29 states direct slower traffic to use the right lane; and 12 states have laws which require drivers to stay in right lane except when passing, exiting, or turning. Sen. Townsend’s bill would add Delaware to the latter group if accepted.

Traditionally, states have justified highway oversight by their monopoly on intrastate travel, by citing police powers, through advancing safety arguments, and by their fundamental jurisdiction provided by the Constitution’s 10th Amendment. All of these rationales could be utilized for creating the right-lane-only rule. However, the one which apparently carried the day here was safety: the scheme is viewed as forestalling incidents of road rage based on slow left-lane drivers and preventing the need to pass a left-lane driver on the right. The suggested fines for violation of the right-lane rule were set at between $100-$200.

From a practical standpoint, the stay-in-right-lane plan is problematical. First, the point about safety can be rebutted with evidence that allowing traffic in both lanes is more economical and efficient. Second, as noted by a former state police officer, SB 185 would be difficult to enforce if approved and would needlessly divert police resources. For instance, although an excuse of turning or exiting can easily be observed, measuring the length of time necessary to pass one or more cars and return to the right lane is a judgment call.

Even if SB 185 pertains only to state roads, it must be noted that there is shared authority and funding for areas where state and federal highways intersect. Given that fact, Delaware citizens could oppose the left-lane prohibition based on two critical constitutional precepts: Congress’s power over interstate commerce and the Article IV privileges and immunities clause. Regarding the latter claim, early rulings by federal courts clearly interpreted the right to include uninhibited travel through states.

Viewing the matter from both of the latter perspectives, the proposition to deny regular travel in the left lane of Delaware highways is inconsistent with both legal and political trends and norms, which have emphasized deregulation at both the federal and state level. More fundamentally, it attempts to legislate forbidden behavior, always a moral quandary.

We can hope that citizens traveling in the left lane at a slower-than-allowed pace will get the message through lights, the horn, or close pursuit, thereby dismissing the perception that such legislation is necessary. Either way, one should not blindly buy the argument that road rage incidents will decrease with the right-lane-only rule. Ultimately, travel and safety on Delaware roads can be better improved by enhanced resources such as highway dividers and by more police enforcement against aggressive and distracted driving.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor for the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati and retired Professor of History and Political Science at Delaware State University. He has resided in Delaware for 30 years.

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