My husband says the left lane is just for passing, always. But what about a regular multi-lane street in a city or town (not a highway or expressway), when cars may have to get into the left lane to make left turns or turn into an exit? And what should I do if someone is tailgating me, there are cars preventing me from moving into another lane, and I can’t get out of the way without really speeding (or without tailgating the vehicle in front of me)? Or what if I’m already speeding up to 110 km/h to pass another car, but the guy behind me is coming up at 130 km/h? Do I have to go 130 km/h or 140 km/h to get out of his way? My husband says the faster car has the right of way at all times, and they show that by tailgating. Slower drivers are responsible for getting out of the way. I say everyone should drive the speed limit, period. – Jeannine, Calgary
The law says slower traffic must keep to the right – but that generally doesn’t give speeder the right to bully anyone into unsafe driving, according to driving experts.
“That’s just the legal aspect. It has nothing to do with safe driving. We need to adjust what we’re doing to the situation,” says Rachel Hesson-Bolton, manager of educational development with Young Drivers of Canada. “If someone is tailgating me and I can’t get out of their way without speeding, they’re breaking the law and they’re trying to get me to break the law.”
In most of Canada, passing is allowed on both sides. The law doesn’t specifically state that the left lane for passing only – just that slower cars should move to the right.
“The law says you can’t exceed the speed limit, but you should yield to faster traffic,” says Alberta Transportation spokesman Trent Bancarz. You can still be ticketed for blocking the left lane or blocking another vehicle from passing, even if you’re going the speed limit. The goal is to balance speed with maintaining the flow of traffic.
For example, in Ontario, stopping abruptly or slowing down with the sole intention of blocking another vehicle is considered stunt driving, which can mean a fine of up to $2,000, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation.
But there are times when drivers aren’t deliberately blocking the flow of traffic but they still can’t instantly move safely out of the way to let traffic pass – there might be a car beside them or they may need to take a left turn at an upcoming intersection.
If the driver in front of you is going slower than you’d like in the left lane, they may have a reason, Hesson-Bolton says.
“Sometimes, we lack that basic empathy. We don’t know the situation with the driver in front of us,” she says. “I have a son, I don’t want to risk his life because if I’m speeding, I can’t brake the same.”
“Or, I might be in a four-cylinder, and I physically can’t accelerate as fast as the big SUV behind me. Or it could be raining and if I go any faster, I’ll hydroplane.”
In Hesson-Bolton’s case, speeding to appease a tailgater could get her instructor’s license suspended.
“Sometimes you get stuck in a lane and you can’t get out. If I push it up to 130 km/h to pass somebody, I could lose my job.”
In Quebec, where passing on the right is illegal, the left lane is for passing only, according to provincial police.
“It applies everywhere, not only the expressways,” says spokesman Grégory Gomez del Prado. “If you’re driving the speed limit in the left lane, and you would be blocking, you could be charged. It’s $200 and three demerits.”
Del Prado says going the speed limit when someone is too close to you in the left lane is not the answer – the car behind you can’t legally pass you on the right.
“If the person behind you is going faster, then you speed up a little so you can get back into the right, even if they’re going faster than the limit,” he says. “It’s a question of going with the flow.”
Generally, the legislation doesn’t define tailgating by giving a specific distance – it usually uses words like ‘reasonable distance.’
The recommendations vary. For example, Quebec provincial police suggest keeping a minimum of three vehicle lengths from the car in front of you, depending on the conditions. Alberta Transportation has suggested one car length for every 10 to 20 km/h. Saskatchewan Government Insurance suggests three seconds between vehicles, while the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia suggests two seconds. And those distances should increase if the conditions are lousy or if you’re following a motorcycle or a large vehicle.
In Alberta, following too closely is the number-one driver action that results in collisions, year after year, Bancarz says.
Fines for following too closely vary. For instance, in Quebec, the fine is up to $200. In Saskachewan, it’s $125.
If you can’t safely get out of driver’s way without speeding, maintain your way and they’ll go around you, says Brian Smiley, spokesman with Manitoba Public Insurance.
“We’ve all been there. There’s peer pressure to go faster. But you’re entitled to do the speed limit,” Smiley says. “If you’re doing 15 km/h over the limit, you’re increasing your stopping distance and it could mean the difference between running a child over and not running a child over.”
Hesson-Bolton says she has no choice but to slow down if someone is following her too closely and she can’t safely get out of their way.
“I will slow down. Not much, maybe a kilometre or two an hour,” she says. “If they back off, I pick up my speed. If they get too close I’ll slow down again and they’ll figure out ‘If I stay farther away from this person, she’ll go faster.’”
If you have any driving queries for Jason, send him a message at email@example.com or contact him through Twitter: @JasonTchir