When you are on an interstate highway with two lanes, everyone knows what to do: the right lane is for people moving at a slower speed, the left lane is for passing. But when you add a third lane, people apparently get flustered. You would think that adding another lane would make freeway traffic flow more smoothly. Regrettably, that is often not the case.
The problem is that many people don’t know how to behave in the middle lane. It’s like it is a perplexing mystery to them. The inexorable logic of road design and the teaching of Drivers’ Ed courses would lead to the conclusion that the right lane remains for slower-moving vehicles, the lane to the left of the right lane–i.e., the middle land–is for passing those slower vehicles, and the far left lane is for passing the middle-lane vehicles. A key part of this analysis is that middle-lane cars on a three-lane road should behave like left-lane cars on a two-lane road, and move over to the right lane after the passing is completed to allow the faster moving cars to freely pass using the two leftward lanes.
Too often, however, this does not happen. Instead, cars tend to camp out in the middle lanes, so much so that they may as well pitch a tent there. How many times have you been on a three-lane highway and seen someone dawdling in the middle lane, clogging up the traffic while frustrated drivers pass them on the left and, dangerously, on the right? It’s as if they feel like the middle lane is their personal traffic lane, to use as they see fit. Why is this so? Is it simply the peculiarly modern problem of self-absorption that has so afflicted our society, or is it that the slow middle-lane drivers like having a buffer lane to the left and to the right and don’t care who they inconvenience or delay to achieve that? And how can they not see the cars lining up behind them, wondering why in the world they don’t move over?
The Mystery Of The Middle Lane sounds like a Hardy Boys story, but instead it is one of those imponderables of American culture. It’s almost to the point where you groan when you see a two-lane highway widen to three lanes, because you know those annoying middle-lane road hogs are going to make an appearance and gum up the works.