I was somewhere in West Virginia trapped on a freeway with two lanes going in each direction, following a tan, slow-driving late-90s American sedan. The car had locked up the fast lane for what felt like a series of endless miles when I heard this voice say: Oh for the love of God, free the fast lane, get your goddamn slow-ass over, and let us through!
I live in Los Angeles. That means I’ve already suffered through about seven lifetime’s worth of shitty drivers. When it comes to ignorant and self-involved fools, Los Angeles roads are the worst. We’re unfairly gifted with terrible drivers. They come from all over the world to clog our freeways. Our unofficial city anthem is Randy Newman’s “I Love LA,” but it really should be Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55.”
But, if we’re being fair, I’ve seen that nearly every state in the union would and could argue that it, too, has its fair share of slow, awful drivers. And I would agree. They do. I’ve driven across America more times than quickly comes to memory.
I drive a lot. I also like to drive fast. Unless we’re talking abut food or sex, it’s almost always better to go fast. It just feels better. That’s why, when I was back there in West Virginia, at that moment just before I had my epiphany, the one that I’m about to share with you, just as I was finally zooming around that tan shit-box sedan that had been clogging the fast lane for the last six miles, I was surprised when the passenger flipped me off. He flipped me off?
Those two idiots thought I was the jerk in the scenario. To them, I’d been rushing up on their tail. They wanted to slow me down. You know what that means, right? They were conspiring against my pursuit of happiness. That’s an awfully, un-American thing for them to do. But that wasn’t my epiphany.
Admittedly, I’d started the ill will. The driver of the sedan sped up twice to ensure I couldn’t pass him, and then he slowed back down once I was stuck again, behind him. The second time he did this …I lifted my pinky finger into view. When I met his eyes in the rearview, I waggled my pinky at him, like a limp little dick. I nodded at him. He knew what I was saying. He was the limp little dick. His eyes grew angry. So, I guess I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised that his passenger flipped me off.
My epiphany occurred after I got done laughing at the passenger flipping me a no-look bird. It began with a simple question: What in the name of Eisenhower is going on, America?! How have our freeways come to this?
Here we were three grown men reduced to dirty hand gestures to express our impotent frustration and male anger. Meanwhile, we were dangerously jockeying around in our one-ton metal boxes at 70 mph in tight traffic. There must be a better way.
This was my epiphany: We can save thousand of lives each year, save billions of dollars in travel and shipping costs, and we’ll raise the quality of life by saving millions of people from the soul-enraging frustration of other drivers. All we have to do is adopt some freeway decorum, mostly, some fast-lane etiquette. We need to free the fast lane.
Right about now, if I were you, and I were reading this, I probably would not be able to get past “freeway decorum.” I’d be like, really, though? In 2015 this dude wants to sell me on “freeway decorum?” Yeah, and maybe tell ISIS to use better table manners.
Seriously, I get it. Why the hell would anyone listen to that guy? I sure wouldn’t. And he’s me.
That’s why I called in some backup. The CHP.
I’m waiting at headquarters for the Southern Division of the California Highway Patrol. All they have to read is cop magazines. I’m waiting to speak with two officers about my idea that people need to get the hell out of the fast lane. I want to hear it from them. I want to know their official policy on speeding—and do they ever police slow drivers, or are they too busy pulling over flagrant speeders like me?
It feels very weird to be a black man waiting in a cop shop. I feel like a deer that’s wandered into a mountain lion’s den. But every officer gives me a friendly smile and good morning.
I hear someone say my name. I put down my copy of Law Enforcement magazine, stand and shake hands with Sgt. Jose Nunez and officer Patricia Ibarra.
For a quick second I marvel at how crisp their uniforms are. Nunez has the sort of warm personal demeanor you expect from an ambassador of a Central American nation. It’s a broad smile, proud, but without looking like a car salesman. Ibarra is equally friendly, and equally formal, but as the one providing the answers, the one speaking for the CHP, she seems slightly nervous. She wants to get started.
They escort me to a conference room. Once we’re all seated and comfortable, Ibarra asks what I want to discuss, although they know why I contacted them for an interview. I sent them some questions before they approved the interview. So, I lay out my story like we’re in a bar instead of a conference room at highway patrol headquarters.
“OK, I just drove across country. Again. Done it a lot. And I saw that from sea-to-shining-sea no one in America knows how to use the fast lane.” I said. “I looked it up. In most states there’s a vehicle code that dictates that slower drivers move to the right. There’s one in this state. So, do you guy ever enforce that? Do you ever encourage slower drivers to move to the right? Or what?”
Ibarra says, “When this condition exists—when the vehicle speed is less than the posted maximum speed—then, it’s safer for that vehicle to move over to the right. That way the slower driver doesn’t create the potential hazard of traffic collisions.”
I shift gears, like a boxer, I see my opening, a rhetorical way to clear the fast lane, but Ibarra seems to see my mind coming, and instead, she also shifts gears and continues talking, hoping to clarify an important point about the fast lane. The exact one I don’t want to hear.
“But if your traffic speed is 65 miles per hour, and you’re in the fast lane—you aren’t doing anything wrong. You’re perfectly fine,” she says, seemingly unaware she’s killing my dreams of a free fast lane.
Ibarra speaks in clear sentences, but with a lively voice, “If everyone else wants to go faster than you, it would be a smart idea to move over, so you’re not creating a hazard for those faster-moving vehicles.”
I want to yell, “Oh, come on! That’s horseshit! And you know it.” But it seems like that would be disrespectful.
Instead, I ask the officers, “When is it imperative that slower drivers move over to the right? Like, what if they’re going 60 mph in a 65 mph zone and someone wants to pass them?”
She senses that I’ve basically reworded the same question, so, Ibarra rewords her answer, “If you’re going a speed below the posted speed limit, you’re definitely going to want to move over to the right.”
Ah-ha! For a moment, I feel like a chess master setting up his rival.
But as I think, Ibarra elaborates on the legalities of the fast lane, “If you are in the fast lane, and you’re creating a back-up in traffic due to your slow speed, an officer can do a health and safety check to see if that person is okay to drive. But like I said, if the slow driver is going 65 mph in a 65 mph zone, they’re not doing anything wrong.”
“Why do you keep saying that?!” is what I want to say. Instead, I ask Ibarra about how patrol officers factor in the “flow of traffic” when enforcing speed limits.
“Let’s say it’s a 70 mph posted speed limit,” I ask, “but people are going 75 mph and 80 mph, zooming past a highway patrol who’s on the side of the freeway. Do you guys just let every person go by? Do you get to pick who you stop?”
Ibarra is on to me, and responds, “No, the idea of ‘flow of traffic’ has absolutely nothing to do with how we enforce speed.”
“Really?” I say.
She must see it. My disappointment is impossible to hide.
Ibarra continues to lay waste to my dreams of an American autobahn.
She says with an official, yet casual politeness, “Basically, what we do is: if you’re going the posted speed limit we’re not going to stop you. If you’re going above the speed limit, whether it’s one or five miles per hour faster, you could potentially be stopped. It’s not very common that you’re going to be stopped if you’re only going one mile over, but you still can be.”
“So, technically, there’s no wiggle room?” I ask.
“Yeah, ‘flow of traffic’ means that if everyone is going 80 mph, an officer may want to look for that one person who’s making those abrupt lane changes that could potentially cause a traffic collision.” Ibarra says, as Nunez nods in agreement.
“Okay, I’ll just be real with you guys—I like to speed,” I say, hoping they get defensive. “Like, I do it all the time. When I leave here, I will speed off down the freeway. As you’ll be happy to hear, I get pulled over from time to time. But I hear many contradictory things from officers in the field, at least from what you’re saying.”
Ibarra isn’t quick to jump at my cheap provocations. She says nothing. She’s real good.
And cool as the crown jewels. Nunez remains silent, too. Damn.
I continue, “I once got pulled over on my birthday. So, I said to the officer, ‘Look, for my birthday, I’m going to ask you one question. I’m not asking you to give me a warning. I don’t want that. I just want to know an honest answer. I’ve heard there’s an unofficial +/- 10 percent allowable overage for the posted speed limit. For instance, if I’m in a 70 mph speed limit and I’m driving at 77 mph, most officers will think okay, but if say I’m going 78 mph, over that ten percent, that’s the point when it becomes an enforceable infraction.’ The officer agreed that was pretty standard for the highway patrol. Now, we both know that’s not in the handbook, but is that like the ‘unofficial policy’ in the field?”
Ibarra’s answers are just as crisp and straightforward as the perfectly ironed collar of her shirt. “No, we don’t have any policy like that. Our policy is that if you’re going the posted speed limit you’re not going to be bothered.”
“I guess that officer was speaking only for himself,” I say, trying to bring some friendliness back into the conference room.
“Yeah, that might be that officer’s standard—maybe that’s what he set for him—but that’s not official CHP policy,” Ibarra says, making herself unmistakably clear.
I continue, “Well, I was doing a little over 85. He said, ‘If you would’ve slowed down just a little bit, like, if you hit your brakes and went past at around 80, I wouldn’t have pulled you over.’ I told him, ‘Yeah, I saw you, and I knew you saw me, if I hit my brakes and tried to fool you into thinking I wasn’t speeding—I didn’t want to treat you like you’re easily tricked, you know, like you’re stupid.’ He told me, ‘I appreciate that you didn’t want to treat me like I’m stupid. You’re still getting a ticket.’”
Both Nunez and Ibarra laugh. Most cops like that story. Ibarra pushes back a few stray blonde hairs. The ones jostled loose by her laughter. Once she composes herself, she explains to me how officer discretion works in the field.
“A lot of those officers work those same beats every day, so if they notice everyone is going 75 and the speed limit is 70, and it’s working for that freeway, he’ll know that ‘Hey, I’m not going to stop someone at 75 even though it’s 70.’ He’ll set his criteria for whatever speed he determines. So, really, it’s kind of an officer’s discretion. Like I said, you can be stopped for going just one mile over the speed limit. It’s not very likely, but you could be stopped. It just comes down to the officer’s discretion.”
OK, then back to freeing the fast lane.
I ask Ibarra point-blank, “Wouldn’t you guys agree it’s more dangerous for slow drivers to clog the fast lane? Don’t you prefer that slower drivers get out of the fast lane? For instance, you don’t want them to try to intentionally slow down faster drivers? You don’t want slow drivers doing your job for you, right?”
Ibarra finally gets my meaning, and she generously places herself in her civilian shoes for a moment to answer the question, “Not at all. I’ve been in the car with my family members, and I’ve heard them say, ‘I’m not going to move, he needs to slow down.’ It’s just better if you get out of the way. You don’t know where they’re going, that person’s state of mind—again, road rage is big in LA, right now. So, for me, you just need to move over for those people. It’s better to be safe, and you don’t want to cause a traffic collision, and not just for yourself but for other people around you.”
Feeling like I finally scored a point for freeing the fast lane, I follow with another question for the fast drivers, “I drive north on I-5 freeway rather often. The fast lane is now the slow lane. If you want to pass someone you can only do it in the slow lane. No, seriously, people have made it all work totally backwards!”
Both Nunez and Ibarra laugh. Easy for them, they get to pull people over.
“It’s fucking ridiculous. I always end up driving with the trucks in the slow lane, speeding, because the other drivers clog the passing lane. So, what can we, the faster drivers of the world, do about this lack of any functional passing lane?”
Her smiles disappears. Ibarra drops back into a more official tone. “Well, if you’re changing lanes a lot, when the flow of traffic is heavy and moving slowly, if an officer’s patrolling that beat you’re going to be the car that sticks out to them. They’re going to be watching you, because they know making all those lane changes is dangerous. For instance, are you maintaining proper space cushions behind those other vehicles? Are you ensuring you aren’t cutting them off? Are you certain that as you’re making those lane changes you aren’t going to cause a collision? I wouldn’t recommend making all those lane changes when you’re in traffic.”
I look at Ibarra like she’s speaking nonsense, like she suffered a blow to the head. Don’t make lane changes? Are you high, woman? I have to. The fast lane is clogged.
“You don’t get it. Those minivans drive me insane,” I say. “They stretch out in groups of five, and then they all go the same speed as the trucks. No one can pass anyone. And those slow bastards don’t care. They think it’s safe. That is if they even notice. There is literally nowhere to go. I can’t tell you how many times I almost found religion on a California freeway.”
Nunez likes that one. He laughs hard like a boy who was dragged to church one too many times.
Meanwhile, Ibarra barely smiles. Instead she’s thinking of the danger I might cause on her freeways and about the lives my speeding risks. “Plus, you need to be on the lookout for motorcyclists,” she says. “They’re always lane-splitting. You never know when a motorcycle is going to come out of nowhere when you are making all your lane changes.“
I switch gears, hoping that efficiency might win me some points, “Using the autobahn as the world’s best example of efficient freeway driving, would you recommend that slow drivers act like they do in Germany and primarily stay out of the fast lane, just use it as a passing lane?”
Nunez and Ibarra both look interested.
“Like, would you guys, the CHP, ever tell California drivers: Hey, there’s a new statewide policy. If you’re a slow driver, stay out of the fast lane. And that goes double for minivans and Prius drivers.”
I’m surprised when they both laugh.
“Well, I can’t speak for making a policy for that,” Ibarra says, “but I know in my experience it makes for a proper flow of traffic if the slower traffic stays to the right. It just makes it safer for everybody.”
I cheer her on, “Yes! I was thinking maybe you guys could have a little cartoon character that urges slow drivers to get the hell out of the way. You could post signs.”
Again, both officers laugh. Ibarra’s smile lingers this time, and he says, “You know, I’m surprised that we don’t have one, or post signs like that somewhere along the freeways. I think that, for a lot of people, they suffer from the common misconception that ‘I can go any speed in any lane.’”
Drivers don’t even know what the fast lane is? It’s my worst fear realized.
“Some people just aren’t familiar with the idea of a fast lane,” Ibarra says. “Maybe they’re not a very experienced driver. Maybe they’re not from this country or weren’t raised here.”
That’s it—there’s the proof—we need to educate all drivers.
America, I’d like you to meet … the fast lane!
It’s the one on the left that you’re clogging, like your arteries.
“Officers, I’ve got to say thanks. You’ve been straight up with me,” I say. “Now, since we both know drivers like me exist, people who are willing to risk getting tickets to go fast, what advice do you have for us, so that we may drive as safely as possible, while we still speed?”
I know the answer before she says it.
“Yes. Go the speed limit,” Ibarra says, just as stubborn as the truth. But again, we all laugh.
And this time, Ibarra continues, but with another lingering smile, “You could be the best driver in the world, but you don’t know what the person next to you is doing, or is on, or what’s happening with them. They could be drunk or distracted—with so many lanes, if they get nervous they can react in a way that causes a traffic collision. If 65 mph is the posted speed limit, that’s what we want you to do.”
So the safest thing we can all do is not speed. The next safest thing we can do: move out of the way of a faster driver. If you like to drive fast, let everyone know:
The lane on the far left, that’s the fast lane. Stay the hell out of the fast lane. Unless you’re passing someone.
I won’t drive so scarily fast, if you all will get the hell out of my way. That seems fair.
Even the highway patrol thinks that would be better for everyone involved. If you believe in speed, be sure to share: let’s all #FreeTheFastLane
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