Road Rules: Passing a car on the right? It’s not necessarily always wrong

There are times and circumstances that it is legal to pass a car on the right, but it always comes down to whether you can do it safely.
There are times and circumstances that it is legal to pass a car on the right, but it always comes down to whether you can do it safely. Staff Photographer

Question: Is it legal to pass on the right on two-lane streets where there is no fog line and the person in front of you is turning left?

Answer: I feel like you’ve nearly answered the question for me. In your question, you actually listed one of only two situations where it is legal to pass on the right. To quote from the Revised Code of Washington, a driver may pass on the right “when the vehicle over taken is making or about to make a left turn.” We’ll get to the second situation a little later.

You also included the bit about the fog line, which is actually important to understanding the law. The law adds two conditions onto passing on the right.

The first, as you might guess, requires passing on the right “only under conditions permitting such movement in safety.” Passing on the right can sometimes fit into the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” category. Coming around from behind a turning car can surprise other drivers, so if you decide to pass on the right, make sure to do a thorough assessment of all the potential hazards before committing to the pass.

The second limitation on passing on the right is that “such movement shall not be made by driving off the roadway.” At first glance that doesn’t seem to be much of a limitation, but “roadway” may be more narrowly defined than you think. In the context of traffic law, the roadway is the part of the highway that is designed and ordinarily used for vehicle travel. It does not include the shoulder of the road.

When a road has a fog line, that line clearly indicates where the shoulder of the road starts. Since traffic lanes are around 12 feet wide or less, it is unlikely that you’d be able to legally pass on the right when a road has a fog line. On a road without a fog line, you would reasonably conclude that the width of the lane reaches from the centerline to the sidewalk. As long as that lane is wide enough to fit two cars (some lanes are, some are not) you could conceivably pass on the right.

I’ll just add that I suspect the usual motivation for passing on the right stems from a desire to get where we’re going faster. I’m not suggesting that you should never pass on the right, but don’t let your sense of urgency overrule your sense of good judgment and safety.

Now let’s tackle the second provision for passing on the right. The law permits passing on the right when there are two or more lanes of traffic travelling in the same direction. It seems so obvious that it wouldn’t even need to be stated, but in some situations it’s actually more like plan B. On the freeway, passing on the right is a sort of work-around for solving the problem of people who camp out in the left lane.

We know about the “keep right except when passing” rule on the freeway. If everyone followed that law, we would rarely have the need to pass on the right. But imagine one slow driver in the left lane of the freeway and no law allowing passing on the right. We’d have a vacant right lane and a left lane backed up for miles. Here we pass on the right to keep the traffic moving.

When passing on the right on the freeway, keep in mind that the driver of the car you’re passing is probably still in the left lane because he or she isn’t paying attention to the traffic backing up behind him or her. That same inattentive driver might eventually put down the phone, notice a string of cars in the rear view mirror and, consistent with a lack of attention, move into the right lane without first checking to see if you’re there.

Based on recent observational studies, it’s safe to assume that about 10 percent of drivers at any given moment are not paying attention to their driving, so the scenario I’m describing isn’t uncommon. Many of you may have experienced it. Good drivers follow the traffic laws; great drivers also anticipate poor drivers who don’t know or choose to disregard traffic laws. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get home safely.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.