When Going Left is My Right


Expertise Includes:

    • Tractor Trailer Accidents
    • Vehicle Collision Reconstruction
    • Crash Data Retrieval
    • Forensic Mapping Technology
    • Motorcycle Collision Reconstruction

The lines on the roadway determine the right-of-way. Did you know a passing zone could limit your right-of-way?

Passing a vehicle traveling in the same direction on a two-lane roadway should be done with great caution. Completing the pass without colliding with the vehicle being passed, other vehicles approaching from the opposing direction, and without losing control and leaving the roadway are vital. There are rules to passing that people forget; some are laws, others are just common sense. Let us take a look at the laws and what sometimes slips by people that can cause an unsafe pass. State laws may differ, so consider these for South Carolina roadways.

A vehicle is defined as anything used to transport people or goods.  It can be an automobile, commercial motor-vehicle, golf cart, motorcycle…. the point being, there are a number of different conveyances that are vehicles and move upon the highway. Though bicycles are not considered vehicles by SC law, and mopeds have their own definition too, they have to abide by the same laws of the roadway just like automobiles and other vehicles. For the purposes of this blog, just consider them both vehicles (not that they are likely to be overtaking anyone, but because they may be being overtaken).

Overtaking a vehicle traveling in the same direction starts by first answering the question “Is there really a need to pass this vehicle?” The next question is “Can the pass be made safely?” Finally “Can the pass be made legally?” Image credit: express.co.uk

South Carolina has laws that govern the process of passing another vehicle traveling in the same direction.  Specifically, they say driving left of center is allowed when passing or overtaking another vehicle traveling in the same direction.  Additional laws state the following:

  • when passing you must drive to the left, at a safe distance around the vehicle you are passing,
  • while passing you cannot return to the right until safe and clear of the overtaken vehicle,
  • the driver of the overtaken vehicle must give way by staying to the right,
  • the driver of the overtaken vehicle cannot speed up until after his vehicle is completely passed,
  • you can only pass if the left side is clear and free from oncoming traffic for a safe distance, which would allow the pass to be made without interfering with any other vehicle approaching from the opposite direction (200 feet),
  • the passing vehicle cannot interfere with the vehicle being overtaken,
  • no passing near a hillcrest or a curve where the driver’s view is obstructed within such a distance as to create a hazard should another vehicle approach from the opposite direction,
  • no passing within 100 ft of, or traversing an intersection (this does not include driveways, alleyways, or private roads),
  • no passing when the view is obstructed upon approaching within 100 ft of a bridge, a viaduct or a tunnel,
  • SCDOT and local authorities can decide where there may be no passing zones because of other hazardous conditions (these areas must be clearly visible by signs or markings on the roadway that indicate the beginning and the end of such zones), and
  • no one can pass another vehicle in a work/construction zone where it could be dangerous for workers.

Many factors go into making a safe and legal pass of another vehicle.  Drivers often obey some rules of passing while overlooking others.

Though we cannot see how this pass was started, we can see that it is being made with a solid line in the car’s direction, on a grade, and as the vehicle approached a minor curve. Image credit: driversed.com

Two things that people often forget when they pass is to observe the posted speed limit and the limited distance of the passing zone.  Passing does not allow you to go above the posted speed limit (This is probably a good place to point out that if the vehicle being overtaken is at or above the posted speed limit, there is no need to pass them).  The speed limit for that area is the maximum you can travel on that roadway.  If you must go above that limit in order to pass, then that pass is unsafe.  Speeding itself increases the risk of collision and passes that are not completed within the passing zone raise the risk even more.  The speed limit is one of the elements taken into consideration when passing zones are laid out (in conjunction with the location of curves, intersections, and hillcrests). Many motorists disregard the importance of completing the pass before the end of the passing zone.  Once the center line is solid, a passing vehicle must be back in its proper lane.  If the pass cannot be completed within that zone, then it is not safe to pass.

Crashes between a vehicle “passing” and one turning left into driveways or parking lots happen frequently. The question often is whether the driver of the turning vehicle failed to yield right of way to a passing vehicle, or was the passing vehicle actually attempting an evasive maneuver to avoid rear-ending the turning vehicle and not really passing after all? In this scenario, first determine if it is a passing zone, the driver of the turning vehicle cannot turn until that movement can be done so safely.  The turning vehicle must signal not less than 100 feet prior to making their turn, and they must not stop or suddenly reduce speed of the vehicle without first giving proper signals.  If there are marks upon the roadway or data from an event data recorder that can show that the passing vehicle’s move left of center was more of an evasive maneuver than an attempted pass, the fault shifts to the “passing” vehicle. If the “passing” vehicle can be shown to be driving over the posted speed limit and that difference in speed contributed to the collision (a time distance analysis is useful at this point) then the passing driver can be determined to have caused the crash or they could both be at fault.

Small intersections, both 4way and T, seem to be confusing people, and sometimes rightfully so. Passing is illegal in an intersection; however, that intersection has to be identifiable to the passing driver. SCDOT has areas that are marked as passing zones for one direction or both. There may be a sign that indicates an intersection ahead, and occasionally there is a reduced or cautionary speed limit for that intersection, yet the roadway markings show it as a passing zone. In these situations SCDOT may share some of the responsibility by setting the conditions for the collision to occur.

This car, attempting to pass slow moving farm tractor on a double yellow line and a grade, was able to stop before colliding with the vehicle as it made a left turn. Tractors may not have signals and their equipment may obstruct your view of the driver. Image credit: wisfarmer.com

In addition to passing another vehicle, another lawful reason to drive left of center is to avoid an obstruction in the lane.  After yielding right of way to any vehicle(s) that may be approaching in the unobstructed lane, a driver may cross the center line to avoid the roadway obstruction. There have been arguments by people passing other vehicles were obstructions in the roadway because they were traveling too slow. Areas of South Carolina are riddled with slow moving farm equipment. Mopeds and bicycles are commonly blamed as well; yet all of these vehicles can lawfully occupy the roadway.  The slower speeds of these vehicles are not an excuse for going left of center in a no passing zone, or even going into an oncoming vehicle’s lane in a passing zone.  These vehicles have to be overtaken in the same manner that any vehicle traveling at the upper end of the speed limit must be overtaken.  Practicing patience when dealing with these slower moving vehicles is a necessity.  Most farm tractors are not traveling far down the roadway before they will exit, and because mopeds obtain a relatively reasonable speed, you should not be behind them long before coming upon a passing zone.

Maybe it’s the fact that since I have retired from law enforcement and I don’t drive a patrol car anymore, but I am witnessing a lot of unsafe passing lately.  I have also been involved in reconstructions involving vehicles passing. There are regulations on the action of passing and sometimes the cause of the crash is clear; however, sometimes the crash is more complicated than the officer or insurance company can see.  A reconstruction of a collision involving a vehicle passing another may help determine which driver is liable for the crash, if liability is shared between the drivers, or if it’s possible that the signage was improper or confusing and set the stage for the damage and/or injury that resulted from the crash.

Aaron (Al) Duncan II, ACTAR, is a senior vehicle reconstructionist with Warren. Prior to joining Warren, he worked for 23 years as a South Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper to include 10 years as a Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team (M.A.I.T.) member. Al has investigated in excess of 1000 vehicle accidents and incidents, as a trooper. Al has testified multiple times in state courts and has been a court qualified as an expert in accident investigation and collision reconstruction. Al’s work expertise focuses on investigating and reconstructing vehicle collisions involving single and multi-vehicles, animals, pedestrians, motorcycles, heavy trucks and commercial vehicles. He is also a skilled user of forensic mapping technology and computerized collision diagramming software for collision scene analysis. Al has been trained in tractor trailer accident reconstruction by the Institute of Police Technology Management (IPTM) and is experienced in the data download and analysis of airbag black boxes (Crash Data Retrieval Units) in automobiles, pickup trucks and SUVs. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Political Science from Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina and completed the Law Enforcement Basic Program at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, South Carolina.

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