Q: I know you’re supposed to pull over if you have five vehicles following you, but once that fifth car gets there, how much time do I have to pull over? When I’m towing our RV I want to be courteous to other drivers, but sometimes it’s a long stretch between good places to pull off, especially going over the passes.
A: When the sun comes out in Washington we roll down the windows, turn up the radio and sing like nobody’s listening. We also load up the camper to squeeze in as many camping days as we can before it starts to rain again. And that leads to questions about traveling with campers. Before we get to your question, thank you for your desire to be a courteous driver. Yes, driving laws are important, and right up there with following the law is being a decent human.
So you’re towing your trailer across the state for a weekend away and you see a fifth car stack up behind you. Are you now in violation of the law? Maybe you’ve seen signs on the side of the highway that read, “Delay of 5 vehicles illegal. Must use turnouts.” But that’s just because you can’t fit the whole law on a sign. Here’s what’s written in the Revised Code of Washington: “On a two-lane highway where passing is unsafe . . . a slow moving vehicle, behind which five or more vehicles are formed in a line, shall turn off the roadway wherever sufficient area for a safe turn-out exists, in order to permit the vehicles following to proceed.”
You can’t control the traffic volume or the speeds of other vehicles, but you can control your decision to get out of the way when the opportunity presents. Accordingly, it’s not illegal to have five vehicles in a line behind you until the point at which you’ve passed a safe place to pull over.
And there’s no rule that says you can’t pull over if there are only three cars behind you. If you’re feeling pressure from faster drivers and the opportunity arises, go ahead and pull over. Driving is stressful enough without another anxious driver on your bumper. In my mind, it’s better to arrive to the campsite a few minutes late and in a good mood rather than being stuffed full of anxiety from being the lead car in a rolling traffic jam.
This law isn’t just about preventing annoying delays. After all, this is a column about traffic safety, not traffic annoyances. Sometimes there’s overlap – such as tailgaters and people who don’t use their turn signals – and this rule fits too. Recently, while some folks were driving across mountain passes, I was riding my bike across one, and from the shoulder I saw plenty of five-to-seven-car pelotons. Also, at one point I had to stop for a deer in the road. It got me thinking about how much safer it is to encounter a deer, or any other hazard, when you don’t have multiple cars right behind you, both for you and for the following drivers who probably won’t see the hazard until after they see the brake lights. By pulling over, you create an opportunity for traffic to spread out so that one hazard isn’t compressed into a multi-car crash.
When you’re the lead car slowing other drivers down, pulling over will both increase their happiness factor and their safety. If you’re one of the following cars, give yourself plenty of room. And if it’s really starting to bug you, try singing a song. I hear that’s supposed to help.
Doug Dahl is a Target Zero Manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and a former deputy sheriff. Send him a question at thewisedrive.com/about-thewisedrive.