DENVER — It's practically automatic: A driver spots a patrol car and immediately slows down. But that spontaneous reaction could get a driver in Colorado slapped with a ticket.
A citation for driving too slow? For not whizzing past a cop car? It sounds counterintuitive, but the Colorado State Patrol says slow drivers who hold up the flow of traffic are a leading cause of "road rage."
And to quell those aggressive reactions to irritatingly slow motorists, state troopers here have launched a campaign to pull over roadway plodders - for a stern lecture, at least, and possibly a ticket.
The worst offenders, officials say, are drivers who refuse to budge from the left lane on fast-moving, high-volume interstates, even as a trail of cars snakes behind them.
"They're making aggressive drivers even more aggressive. They're aggravating the situation," says State Trooper Rod Campbell. "What we're asking is that they get out of the way. Once they start backing up traffic, they can be cited."
Swelling population and suburban sprawl around Denver have meant more crowded highways, longer commutes, and shorter fuses among drivers. Singling out slow drivers is intended to ease frustration - and related accidents - and smooth out traffic flow.
The intent isn't to punish drivers who abide by the speed limit, Trooper Campbell stresses. Still, in Colorado, as in most states, impeding the flow of traffic is illegal. That means a motorist can be ticketed for blocking other drivers - even speeders. In fact, in 21 states (but not Colorado) the left lane is reserved for passing motorists and can't be used legally for continuous travel.
Stopping road rage
And slower traffic is generally expected to keep to the right on highways in all states, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Moreover, regardless of the prevailing law, it's safest for slower motorists to stay out of "the passing lane," safety experts stress.
Colorado's approach, while ahead of the curve in battling aggressive driving, is being lauded by traffic-safety advocates.
"We believe this can help prevent road-rage incidents," says Stephanie Faul, spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington. Studies show that aggressive driving is fueled by three main actions, she says: tailgating, bad lane changes, and people going too slow in the fast lane.
And in Denver, the unorthodox campaign comes as welcome relief to some time-pressed drivers. "Ideally, the left lane should be open for passing. But people are driving in the left lane thinking that they're enforcing the law for people behind them," says commuter Jeffrey Olson. "And it infuriates the person behind them."
Motorists who travel the speed limit in the left lane often believe no one else has the right to go faster, agrees Ms. Faul.
"There are always people who feel they have the right to obey the law, and they do. But the issue of obeying the law is secondary to the primary issue that you're endangering your life."
Keep right, pass left
Although many states that maintain "keep-right, pass-left" laws - including Utah, Nevada, and Oklahoma - are in the wide-open West, Faul says the concern is global.
"The issue of people wanting to get around you is international." On high-speed European turnpikes like the autobahn, for example, slow drivers proceed at their own peril.
"The safest thing is for everyone to go at about the same speed," Faul says. "If you want to go slower than people behind you, it's not the wisest choice."
Critics, on the other hand, claim Colorado's policy encourages speeding by lending it tacit approval.
But Campbell insists that's not so: When law-abiding motorists stay out of the left lane, except to pass, it's easier for police to catch speeders. "Give us a clear shot at them," he pleads.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society