After spending the winter as a “snowbird” in Palm Springs, I’m now back home in Washington State. Back here in the land of the Prius. Back where a local entrepreneur has opened a “100% Vegan and Gluten Free” ice cream truck in a converted VW microbus. Back where I get adds for “at home delivery” for all my “cannabis” needs, (with delivery until 2am on weekends!) Back to where I have to take a vitamin D supplement each morning. After five months away it’s an adjustment to say the least.
But I think the biggest adjustment is the propensity for everyone here in the great PNW to drift to the left -- and not just in politics. Yes the politics here seem to run the spectrum of left, to the further left, to “off the cliff left,” but the drivers here for some reason are absolutely glued to the left lane of the road as well. I really have never seen anything like it anywhere else, and I’ve driven and ridden in all 48 of the lower U.S. states.
After a winter in California I got very used to drivers being quite attentive to the “keep right except to pass” doctrine. In fact almost nowhere outside of the Autobhans in Germany do drivers stay outside of the left lane unless they are moving faster than the rest of the pack of traffic than I saw in California. It almost felt like the speed limit was a “minimum” – a philosophy that is near and dear to my heart.
Inevitably when I’d be riding along the I-10 or along one of the Coachella Valley arterials like Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra, everyone would at least be doing the speed limit plus a few MPH and they would stay out of the left lane except to pass. And in those rare instances where it was someone driving slow in the left lane, almost inevitably they would have Washington plates. Coming up behind someone with Washington plates more often than not would mean that they would drive slower than the rest of traffic and be further to the left than they should be, and everyone would be forced to go around them.
My ride home on the bike took me up through the far Eastern edge of California, behind the Sierra’s up through the Owens Valley and into Carson City, Nevada before cutting back into California and up into Klamath Falls, and Bend Oregon and home via Yakima and Snoqualmie Pass. It was a wonderful four-day ride and a great way to get home. And all through California traffic moved at a nice clip and no one was hogging or blocking the left lane (unless they had Washington plates).
Crossing into Oregon though, aside from everyone really slowing down because of their ridiculous state wide slow speed limits, the left lane remained clear for the most part. But the closer I got to Washington, the more drivers I found who stuck to exactly the speed limit, and who tended to drift left on four lane or more roads.
And then upon crossing the Columbia River on US-97, almost at the middle of the bridge, traffic just gravitated to the left lane as if they were magnets or some other invisible force of nature pulling traffic to the left the moment they entered the state. I don’t think we are teaching this in high-school drivers education courses, so what is it that compels most Washington drivers to head to the left lane and drive exactly at or under the speed limit? I’d love to figure this one out.
Perhaps it’s tied to the politics after all. This is very much a “nanny” state. Washington loves to wag its finger and tell us what we should do and makes laws to force us to do it (such as compulsive recycling). It’s almost like the state is full of relatives of Ned Flanders from the Simpsons! So it must also transfer over to driving on the road; “ the law is drive 55 so by golly that’s what we’ll do and not a mile per hour over it. And if you won’t do the right thing I’m gonna force you to do it by driving in the left lane myself.”
Needless to say I was quite astonished to read when I got back home that the Washington State Patrol is starting to crack down on this and is pulling over and busting left-lane squatters. According to one article I read in Road and Track said state troopers say that one of the biggest problems they see are left-lane hogs and violating the keep right except to pass rule, causing tailgating and lane changes and driving people to road rage.
WSP says they are out to change driver behavior, whether its with tickets, or warnings or education. Lets hope they keep it up and it sticks, although it will be hard to issue tickets or warnings to the majority of the population. Perhaps over time we’ll see a free flowing left lane. Getting us out of the far left lane of politics is an altogether different thing entirely. I suspect we are going to drift further to the left before we hit a wall of voter resistance – if we do at all. This fall’s elections will be a good measure of that. Meanwhile watch out for that Prius driving slow in the left lane, they are headed to get some gluten free vegan ice cream!
Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com