Rules of the Road

Wait a minute, is there a law in Washington that actually makes it legal to speed?

A Washington state law says drivers must pull to the side of the road when safe if they are holding up more than five vehicles. Does that mean someone driving the speed limit could get ticketed?
A Washington state law says drivers must pull to the side of the road when safe if they are holding up more than five vehicles. Does that mean someone driving the speed limit could get ticketed? Getty Images

Question: Over mountain passes and other highways, drivers encounter a sign stating “Delay of five vehicles illegal; must use turnouts.” This relates to the law that requires slow-moving vehicles to pull off the roadway.

The law states a vehicle must pull off to let others proceed if the slow-moving vehicle is traveling at “a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place.”

This implies that the slow-moving vehicle could be traveling the speed limit and still be required to let others pass, thereby enabling others to drive above the speed limit and break the law. I understand normal citizens are not to enforce traffic law, but I thought it odd there is a law designed to allow others to potentially break the law. What is your interpretation?

Answer: I’ll give you my interpretation, but remember that the only legal interpretation that really matters is the one from a judge.

Although rooted in a specific law, this seems like more of a philosophical question: Can the law give implicit permission to break the law? I’m not prepared to answer that question, but I think I can make an argument as to why this particular law doesn’t support that possibility.

Let’s begin with context. Traffic laws make up what I’m pretty sure is the largest title of the Revised Code of Washington, and to understand one section of the law, we often have to view it within the context of other sections around it.

The law in question is RCW 46.61.427, and it’s located in a group of laws with the heading “Speed Restrictions.” The first law in this group begins by stating that “No person shall drive a vehicle on a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions . . .” and then continues to make points about a driver’s responsibility to avoid collisions and drive with due care.

Speed laws are not just about a number. They’re about safety.

That said, they’re often measured in numbers, and the next subsection makes that clear, stating, “no person shall drive on a highway at a speed in excess of such maximum limits.”

The law permits, and even encourages, drivers to travel at a speed lower than the speed limit as needed for safety, but never (actually almost never, we’ll get to that later) permits exceeding the speed limit.

We should view the slow-moving vehicle law within this context, and we should also consider the intent of the law. It was written not to penalize people going the speed limit and holding up speeders, but to prevent vehicles that can’t or won’t keep up with the “normal flow of traffic” from causing congestion on the highway.

Because the law clearly states that speeding is a violation, I’d like to think it works from the assumption that the “normal flow of traffic” is the speed at which most law-abiding drivers would travel on a road.

Right now some of you might be thinking, “Have you been on I-5 lately? Normal flow and law-abiding are not necessarily the same thing.” Fair point.

Despite those considerations, the letter of the law, in theory, would seem to allow an officer to issue an infraction to a driver traveling at the speed limit if five or more speeders have backed up behind him.

In practice that’s not the case. I checked in with some folks in the law enforcement community, none of which had ever stopped a driver for this violation while driving at the speed limit. The exception, one officer suggested, would be for the driver who accelerates to the speed limit in passing zones and then slows down in no-passing zones, causing other drivers to back up but never giving them an opportunity to pass.

Note also that the law doesn’t require a driver to pull over at the moment when the fifth car joins the line. The driver “shall turn off the roadway wherever sufficient area for a safe turn-out exists.” That’s not the next marginally wide spot on the shoulder; it’s an area wide enough to pull of safely and long enough to slow down and then merge back onto the roadway without being a hazard.

If you were looking for a law that explicitly permits speeding, you’d find it in the one about passing slow-moving vehicles.

A driver who is passing a slow-moving vehicle can briefly exceed the speed limit if necessary to complete the pass safely. This is limited to roads that have only one lane of travel in each direction and isn’t a free-for-all. Any speed beyond what is required to safely pass would be a violation of the law.

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.