Rules of the Road

Can drivers be overly cautious, or are they just timid? Here’s what the law says

You can ever be too cautious when driving. However some behaviors have the potential to be true hazards for other drivers. Some of them are against the law in Washington state.
You can ever be too cautious when driving. However some behaviors have the potential to be true hazards for other drivers. Some of them are against the law in Washington state. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Question: Why don’t you write about drivers that are too cautious? Numerous times I’ve witnessed drivers that drive 45 to 50 mph on the freeway, stop at the top of the ramp before entering the freeway, refuse to turn left against oncoming traffic until the left turn signal light returns, drive 10 car lengths behind another car in a 35 mph zone, drive 25 mph in a 35 mph zone and stop 60 feet before a crosswalk startling the car behind them.

Answer: I don’t write about drivers that are too cautious because I don’t think you can ever be too cautious when driving. As I’ve said many times, for most of us, driving is the most dangerous activity we do on any given day; it seems like caution should be our default every time we get into a car.

However, you’ve listed a series of driving behaviors, some of which have the potential to be true hazards for other drivers.

Those behaviors might be the appropriate action in congested traffic, pouring rain or freezing weather, but for the sake of our discussion here, let’s assume that they all occurred on clear days with dry pavement under typical traffic conditions.

If that’s the case, I submit that these aren’t cautious drivers. They may be timid drivers, scared drivers, poorly trained drivers, lost drivers or even incompetent drivers, but I wouldn’t describe their actions as cautious.

One of the hallmarks of a truly cautious driver is predictability. This includes using turn signals and paying attention to the speed limit, but it also includes being where other drivers expect you to be given the circumstances.

Some of the actions listed in the question would be hard to predict or anticipate, and some of them can be dangerous.

But are they legal? Let’s take a look at what our state law says about these driving behaviors:

▪ Driving 45 mph on the freeway: The law says that “No person shall drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic...” (RCW 46.61.425) I’d understand that to mean that if you’re the only one on the freeway you wouldn’t be violating the law, but if you’re impeding traffic, it’s a violation.

However, since there are two lanes on the freeway, I suppose one could argue that traffic isn’t being impeded because the left lane is available.

▪ Stopping on a freeway onramp: Here’s a quote from the Washington Driver Guide: “Do not drive to the end of the ramp and stop.” However, the law leaves room for the potential need to stop to avoid a collision. (RCW 46.61.190) I’m going to mark this one as legal if necessary, but generally a bad idea.

▪ Refusing to turn left against oncoming traffic until the left turn signal light returns: I can’t find anything in the law requiring someone to make a left turn on a permissive green light (as opposed to a protected green arrow). If the person in front of you isn’t willing to make that turn, it looks like you’ll just have to be patient.

▪ Driving 10 car lengths behind another car in a 35 mph zone: There is a law about following too close, but I’m pretty sure there’s no law against following too far.

▪ Driving 25 mph in a 35 mph zone: I’ll refer back to the earlier references to driving at a speed that impedes the reasonable movement of traffic. One indicator of reasonableness might be how many cars are being delayed by the slow vehicle. The law requires slow-moving drivers to pull over when safe if they are delaying five or more cars. (RCW 46.61.427)

▪ Stopping 60 feet before a crosswalk: The law states that when approaching a stop sign at an intersection, drivers shall stop at the stop line, or if there is no stop line, before the crosswalk. It doesn’t specify how far before the crosswalk, but let’s be reasonable.

Generally, if you run into the driver in front of you, it’s your fault, but I found that in Washington juries are instructed that if the driver in front has “acted in an unusual or unexpected manner that the following driver could not reasonably anticipate,” the following driver is not presumed to be negligent.

Stopping 60 feet before the crosswalk might be considered unusual or unexpected.

In addition to predictability, careful drivers anticipate the unexpected. To quote one of the most obvious statements in the Washington Driver Guide, “Some drivers do not obey traffic signals or signs.”

Since we can’t control the actions of other drivers, the best drivers leave time and space to respond to the sometimes incomprehensible events that happen on our roads.​

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 TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

  Comments