As a legislator from southern Minnesota, Sen. John Jasinski spends a lot of time commuting on I-35 between Faribault and the Capitol in St. Paul. He often notices motorists driving below the speed limit — in the left lane.
“It gets frustrating,” he says. “They just plug away there, clueless.”
So the Republican lawmaker decided to pursue a so-called “slowpoke” law at the Legislature that would fine left-lane malingerers. About a dozen states nationwide have enacted similar measures.
Minnesota law currently calls for drivers proceeding below the “normal speed of traffic” to stick to the right lane, unless they are passing another vehicle or making a left-hand turn. Jasinski said his bill would add some teeth to the measure by possibly increasing the current $125 penalty for left-lane scofflaws.
Details still need to be worked out, but Jasinski doesn’t think the Minnesota State Patrol should be handing out “thousands of tickets.”
“I see this as educational to improve traffic flow,” he said.
Proponents of slowpoke laws say they alleviate congestion and promote safety by encouraging orderly traffic flow on the nation’s highways. Right-lane driving also saves gas and prevents road rage, said Shelia Dunn, communications director for the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association.
“Sometimes it’s arrogance,” Dunn said. “People think if they’re driving the speed limit, why not drive in the left lane?”
The association, a grass-roots group that fights to protect the “driving freedoms of motorists,” has an interesting theory regarding the decline of “lane courtesy” since the interstate highway system gained steam in the mid-20th century.
Before the 1970s, rural speed limits meant slower vehicles naturally moved to the right. But when the 55-mph national maximum speed limit was enacted in 1974 in response to the oil crisis, all heck broke loose on the nation’s highways, the group said.
“Slower drivers that would have stayed in the right-hand lane before felt they could drive wherever they wanted now because they would still be going the speed limit or faster,” the association said. This left the impression to the next generation of drivers that left-lane loafing was just fine.
By the mid-1990s, the 55-mph limit was repealed, and many states (Minnesota included) opted to increase speed limits on some roads, encouraging slower motorists to move over. “Unfortunately, almost a quarter century of poor lane courtesy had a lasting, negative impact,” the group noted on its website.
A 2016 “Road Rage Report” conducted by the travel website Expedia found the “Left-Lane Hog” was the fourth most-annoying driving behavior. (This was behind the Texter, the Tailgater and the Last-Minute Line-Cutter.)
When asked if Minnesotans are worse than left-lane hogs in other states, Jasinski said, “it happens all over.”
However, a study released in December by the insurance website Quote Wizard found that Minnesota drivers were the second-worst in the nation last year, due to an increase in crashes, speeding and citations. The study doesn’t specifically mention left-lane slowpokes, but it does quote a Minnesota transplant saying drivers here are “too fast, too slow, too angry.”
Fellow legislators appeared to like the idea behind the slowpoke bill on Wednesday. The bill was approved at a hearing before the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee and sent to the Judiciary Committee for further review and tweaking.
At this point, it’s unclear what the exact penalty would be should the slowpoke bill become law. Under current law, the “slow-moving” infraction is a petty misdemeanor — meaning no jail time for violators. If the law makes violations a misdemeanor, then a jail sentence of up 90 days and a maximum fine of $1,000 (or both) could be imposed. But Jasinski said he’s not interested in draconian fines or penalties, he wants to “raise awareness” about the issue.
As Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, noted: “I’m not comfortable charging my grandmother with a crime.”