As Dante narrates his 14th century journey through the levels of hell in Inferno, he meets various sinners who suffer retributive punishments that correspond to their chief sin. In the third circle, Dante encounters gluttons who are forced to lie in a vile slush, blind to their surroundings. The allegorical punishment is intended to reveal the true nature of the sin—the selfishness and emptiness of sensuality. The fourth circle punishes the greedy—those who hold one of two inappropriate attitudes toward material possessions: on one hand, the avaricious, or hoarders, and on the other hand, the squanderers. The two sides are forced to joust one another by pushing large weights with their chests:
They struck against each other; at that point,
each turned around and, wheeling back those weights,
cried out: Why do you hoard? Why do you squander?
Between the third and fourth circles are sinners that Dante neglects to identify: left-lane lurkers. We can only speculate, but the most likely reason this circle is not mentioned is the anachronism of vehicular sin in the 14th century, and the unfamiliarity of Dante and his poet-guide Virgil with modern automobiles and highway courtesy. Regardless, the punishment endured by left-lane lurkers is as apposite as the punishments in the other circles.* These sinners are fitted with a ball and chain—attached through their Achilles tendon—and compelled to crawl on all fours, dragging the weight for all of eternity, reminding them of the slow agony that they inflicted upon the drivers lined up behind them in the passing lane. Like the gluttons in the third circle of hell, the left-lane lurkers are blind, reflecting their inconsideration and obliviousness to their surroundings. This blindness causes the sinners to bump into each other frequently during their bumbling, sometimes causing “traffic jams.”
On a recent trip from North Carolina to Oklahoma to visit my parents (1,100 miles one way), I encountered left-lane hogs at least twice per hour. At one point, I observed a woman drive more than thirty miles without leaving the left lane. At times, she had more than ten vehicles stacked up behind her. I had my cruise control set on 78 mph (in a 70 mph zone), which was slightly more than the flow of traffic. She clearly was not using speed control, because she ranged from around 65 to 85 mph, depending on her level of attention to her phone and her passenger. The infuriating thing was that she was happy to pass you on the left when she was doing 85, but when she slowed to 65, anyone passing her had to do so on the right.
As our highways become ever more congested, and common courtesy seems to be at an all-time low, some states have recently revisited their “keep right” laws. While 30 states follow the Uniform Vehicle Code requiring “slower” traffic to keep right, enforcement is usually rare, since speeding tickets are better revenue producers. “Impeding traffic” is an excuse more often used by officers to pull over a suspicious vehicle. In addition, the verbiage “slower traffic” is vague, with many speed-limit drivers feeling no obligation to yield to speeders. In fact, only five states and Puerto Rico stipulate that drivers must keep right only if traveling below the speed limit (for shame, Alaska, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Dakota!). Otherwise, “slower” refers to the normal flow of traffic, despite the protests of proud lane-hogs who obstinately rationalize blocking traffic by self-righteously insisting that they are “keeping people from speeding.”
Ten other states, including my home state of Oklahoma, specify that drivers must keep right except to pass, turn left, or to allow traffic to merge. New Jersey, already a “keep right except to pass” state, recently passed a bill through the Assembly that would increase the fine for offenders from a range of $50-$200 to a range of $100-$300. The bill now awaits Governor Christie’s signature. The Georgia legislature also considered a bill which would have clarified the state’s “keep right” policy this spring. The new law would have specified that drivers should keep right except to pass, but would only apply if another car was trying to get by. As far as I have been able to determine, the law was not passed by the deadline of the legislative session. Florida lawmakers passed a bill in May making it illegal to drive less than 10 mph below the speed limit in the left lane. The fine is $60. Somehow I don’t think that will be a deterrent to all the retirees out on their leisurely Sunday drive.
Even though I was only in Germany for two weeks, I miss driving there. We never saw a single disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Never a chunk of tire in the road. Not a single wreck, despite driving around 700 miles at speeds of up to 90 mph (as fast as our rented Renault Clio would go!), and being passed on the Autobahn by BMW’s doing 130 mph. Yes, I miss driving in Germany, where if you pass someone, make it quick, and get back over to the right. There is always someone going faster than you, and they are entitled to the passing lane. If you are in the way, you will have a BMW or Mercedes molesting your tailpipe.
*Thanks to my sister Sarah, whose devious imagination helped me come up with an appropriate punishment for left-lane lurkers.