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driving concerns

I had family visiting from Germany and they were surprised to see cars in the right lane passing cars in the centre and left lanes on a multilane highway. It’s common here, but is it legal? Even if it’s legal, is it safe? I always thought it wasn’t allowed because you don’t expect people to be passing you on the right. – Erika, Oshawa, Ont.

In Ontario, the law doesn’t say it’s wrong to pass on the right – but it’s usually a bad idea, a safety expert says.

“I was born and raised in Belgium – and, there, slower traffic drives on the right, you pass on the left and once you’ve passed, you go back to the right,” said Ward Vanlaar, chief operating officer at the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), an Ottawa-based not-for-profit that promotes road safety. “In North America on a three-lane highway, you’ll see cars who are slower in middle lanes and cars are passing on the left and right – for me that was weird to adjust to.”

So what does the law say? In Ontario, passing on the right is legal, according to the provincial Ministry of Transportation (MTO).

Section 150 of Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act states that using the right lane for passing a car in the left lane is legal as long as it can be done safely and one of the following conditions be met.

The law states the car you’re passing must be making or signalling a left turn; that the road must be wide enough for two lanes of traffic in both directions; or that the highway be designated for one-way traffic only.

But, in practice, that doesn’t mean you can’t pass a car to the right if it isn’t turning left – you just have to meet one of those three conditions, Mike Fenn, senior issues advisor with the MTO, said in an email.

“[We encourage] drivers to use the left lanes for passing other vehicles,” Fenn said. “However, we also understand that sometimes it is difficult for motorists to drive in the right lane and pass on the left – particularly on high volume roads where all lanes are occupied with large amounts of traffic, or during periods of inclement weather.”

The rules vary by province. Generally, most allow passing on the right, but with conditions. Typically, you only have to meet one.

In Alberta, for example, you can pass on the right if the left lane is obstructed, if there’s sufficient space, or if it would not cause an obstruction to the vehicles travelling in the right lane, Constable Lauren Mowbray, a spokeswoman for Alberta RCMP, said in an email.

“You may pass in the right lane on a multilane road,” Mowbray said. “Should you? No. It can be more dangerous as it can congest traffic and force others to make an unnecessary lane change.”

Quebec bans passing on the right entirely – unless the left lane is blocked by a car turning left or by a “snow removal or road maintenance vehicle doing work.”

“It’s illegal in Quebec to pass on the right,” said Sergeant Audrey-Anne Bilodeau, a spokeswoman for Sûreté du Québec, Quebec’s provincial police force.

More conflicts

Even when the law allows passing on the right, it’s probably safer not to, TIRF’s Vanlaar said.

While Vanlaar said he isn’t aware of any studies showing that passing on the right is dangerous, he said cars passing in both the left and right lanes creates unpredictability on the road. “If you don’t have lane discipline [where slower traffic keeps right and faster traffic passes on the left] and you have cars driving past slower cars on both sides, that will potentially create more conflicts,” Vanlaar said. Instead, all drivers should stick to the right lane and use the left lane only to pass slower cars.

But what if you’re the one in the middle lane going at or slightly above the speed limit and you’re being passed on both sides?

That’s “a sign that you should be doing something different, Vanlaar said. You should get into the right lane as soon as you safely can. While, technically, no cars should be exceeding the speed limit, it’s not your job to slow those cars behind you by sitting in the centre or left lane, Vanlaar said.

“As drivers, we should never be enforcing the law,” Vanlaar said. “That’s reserved for police.”

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