People who “hog” the middle lane on the motorway could now be fined £100 and given points on their licence. But why is staying in the middle lane a bad thing?
Middle-lane “hogging” has gone on for years. It’s common to see a situation where the left-hand lane is relatively empty but cars are still sitting in the middle lane instead of just using it for overtaking.
Part 264 of the Highway Code says: “You should always drive in the left-hand lane when the road ahead is clear. If you are overtaking a number of slower-moving vehicles, you should return to the left-hand lane as soon as you are safely past.”
The Highways Agency tried signs in 2004 urging people to keep left but the problem has not been solved.
With “undertaking” [overtaking to the left of a car] frowned upon in the UK, middle-lane driving can annoy many people.
Now the government has outlined its latest attempt to tackle this seemingly perennial problem. People who hog the middle lane will be subject to spot fines of £100 and points on their licence.
But what are middle-lane drivers actually doing wrong?
AA president Edmund King says there’s a very simple reason why lane-hogging is wrong. “It causes congestion.”
He says that lane-hogging wastes a third of motorway capacity, probably a reference to research by the RAC Foundation.
It means that the slowest, inside lane is under-used and the remaining traffic is bunched up into the middle and outside lanes.
“It’s a particular problem where we’ve widened motorways to four lanes because the middle lane hoggers can take up two lanes.”
But the extent to which lane hoggers cause congestion is controversial. Benjamin Heydecker, professor of transport studies at University College London, has looked at the impact of hoggers on congestion. “We expected to find a big reduction in capacity. But the answer was surprisingly small.”
People who say that middle-lane hoggers cut carrying capacity by a third are wrong, he says.
It may be that they’re looking at a three-lane motorway and assuming that the middle lane is out of action. That would be true if the lane hoggers were stationary. But they are still moving relatively fast.
“They [the hoggers] are moving, so if the traffic is concentrating behind them you still have flow.”
The lane hoggers do affect the carrying capacity of a road because they are forcing people behind to change lanes, he says. “But it is certainly not a one third reduction in capacity,” he says.
Ronghui Liu, tutor at the Institute for Transport Studies believes it depends on the level of traffic. At high flow (very busy) level you want traffic spread evenly between the lanes.
This is how the M25 operates much of the time with traffic following a variable speed limit of, say, 60mph. There is no moving between lanes and the maximum amount of traffic fits on to the road, moving in line with the variable speed limit.
But on moderately busy motorways lane hogging might be a problem, she argues. People who would have the opportunity to overtake cannot do so.
There are cultural differences. In France anyone dawdling in the overtaking lane will soon be flashed or tailgated. Neither is lane-hogging common in Germany, says Liu.
“Lane-hogging is just not seen on German autobahn, which functions very well without a mandatory speed limit and with fewer lanes, often just two.”
Congestion is not the only factor. Lane hogging makes other drivers angry and forces them to weave in and out of the traffic, says motoring journalist Quentin Willson.
“You take umbrage because you know they’re muppets who don’t understand how the motorway works,” Willson says. There is a “grammar” to driving on the motorway. You stay left, overtake where necessary and then move into the left-hand lane. That’s what the Highway Code says – it’s a way of allowing the traffic to travel at the optimum speed.