A pilot scheme in Cheshire is warning motorway drivers of the dangers of staying in the middle lane – and the price they may pay in fines if they do so. But some motorists believe that preventative measures hit drivers in the pocket unnecessarily. What role does education have to play in this, and are on-the-spot fines really the best answer to a long-standing problem? Eric Rogers investigates...
Towards the end of July, a campaign was launched in Cheshire to combat the practice of driving in the middle lane on motorways without due cause. Cheshire Police, alongside Highways England, have made efforts to clamp down on the driving practice through the rolling-out of a poster campaign at several service stations, as well as through electronic notice board reminders on selected motorways.
In addition to adverts and notices, Cheshire Police has the authority to hand out a £100 on-the-spot fine and three penalty points to offending drivers. Police dashboard cameras are able to pick up on the practice and footage recorded can be used as evidence against those hogging the middle lane.
The pilot scheme is now entering its third month, and if it is deemed successful the scheme will be rolled out across England, with the possibility of personal dashcams being used as evidence in addition to police equipment. Shortly before the scheme began, it was widely reported that the first driver to be convicted of hogging the middle lane on a motorway in England since the law was changed in 2013 was made to pay almost £1,000 and given five penalty points for his actions. Ian Stevens, a 42-year-old painter and decorator, was ordered to pay a £500 fine and £440 in costs when police witnessed his Citroen Berlingo travelling in the middle lane for several miles on the M62 near Huddersfield in August 2014. The issue of driving in the middle lane has been the subject of widespread debate since the early summer, as this conviction and the new Government scheme both went public.
This is the latest in a long line of driving-related legislation aimed to protect road users – from the new law on smoking in cars, to the argument that speed cameras are only about making a profit. Middle-lane hogging is a practice that can cause multiple issues on the road, with a recent survey revealing that one-in-seven motorists admit that middle-lane hoggers give them road rage, showing that one driver’s actions can have a serious knock-on effect in this case.
Some drivers in Cheshire are furious at the prospect of £100 on-the-spot fines for this behaviour, however. The idea that there’s monetary value attached to the catching out of drivers who aren’t deemed to be using the road in accordance with the law will stoke the flames of a debate that began with fines for being flashed by a hidden speed camera. The less controversial elements of this pilot scheme are the way forward.
Simply put, fines are not the only preventative measure. There needs to be more extensive education around motorway driving in order to promote better driving in the long run. An on-the-spot fine for the worst middle-lane hoggers would be far less controversial if the majority of drivers felt confident in not only their own knowledge of the rules of motorway driving but also in their ability to drive according to the rules.
But there are middle-lane hoggers out there, and the worst culprits may not be caught out and punished, even with this on-the-spot fine tactic. In an enlightening piece in the Telegraph earlier this summer by Allison Pearson, the question ‘What’s wrong with being middle of the road?’ was asked, addressing this specific issue. The article goes on to suggest that the safest place for drivers to be on the motorway is in the middle lane. Even if this opinion piece is written in a lighthearted fashion, it is symptomatic of the struggle that enforcement agencies have to promote better driving on the motorways.
The suggestion here is that being in the fast lane means having to “break the speed limit, to avoid being mown down” by cars coming up behind you, and that being in the left-hand lane means being “the ham in the sandwich of two juggernauts”. It may well be that there are many bad drivers on the motorway at both ends of the speed spectrum, but becoming a bad driver yourself by hogging the middle lane clearly isn’t helpful for anyone.
In direct opposition to Pearson’s claims that the middle of the road is the safest place to be, Cheshire Police has adopted “More likely to encounter an undertaker” as their stark motto for the middle-lane-hogging clampdown. Insp Richard Hill, from Cheshire Police’s Roads Policing Unit, said: “People often feel that if they are in the middle lane of the motorway they are in the safest place, when in fact they are potentially putting themselves and other road users in danger. Sitting in the middle lane not only causes aggravation for other motorists, it can cause accidents and leave you with a fine if you are caught.”
So why is this an issue in the first place? It could be that there are many of us who agree with Allison Pearson and choose to stay in the middle lane, knowing full well they are not driving in accordance with the rules of the motorways. Or is it that many of us don’t actually know that the middle and right-hand lanes are for overtaking only? Either way, education is the solution. We must teach those of us who know the rules but choose to ignore them for reasons of safety that their assumption that they are safer in the middle lane is wrong.
And we must teach those who simply don’t know any better that the middle lane is for overtaking, not coasting.
One suggestion for a specific longer-term solution to this problem is to make motorway driving a part of the driving test. Although this sounds simple in theory, in practice it is extremely difficult to achieve across the country. If you live in a rural area, the problem here is clear: motorway coverage in the United Kingdom is hardly extensive. We would have to somehow account for many East Anglians having to drive over a hundred miles to the nearest three-lane dual carriageway. Another similar idea is to not allow recently-passed drivers onto motorways – much like learners are not permitted on motorways – until they have completed a Pass Plus course, but this would be very difficult to enforce.
Perhaps we should turn to the theory test for further reinforcement of the rules of the motorway. This again has its drawbacks: only a small percentage of the drivers on the road have actually taken the theory test, as it was first introduced in 1996, and even though motorway driving is highlighted in the test this has so far not cut out the problem. Adapting the test may make the next generation of drivers smarter, but we must also re-educate those already driving in an improper manner.
The simplest and likely most effective element of the pilot scheme currently taking place in Cheshire is using the electronic signage to remind drivers to stick to the left-hand lane if they aren’t overtaking. Electronic boards on motorways have been used to great effect to remind drivers to take a break, to watch out for motorbikes, and to keep your distance between you and the car in front. The cost of adding a new message to be displayed at various points on the motorway network would be negligible, and there would be no public outcry at another Government driving scheme that can be seen as a profit-driven enterprise.
The on-the-spot fines may provide an incentive to a select group of motorists, but in the main such a tactic is not popular with the public at large. This is because it could be argued that the wealthiest bad drivers can simply pay their way out of trouble. Education and reinforcement must be the watchwords for cutting out this driving habit, and I hope these elements of the pilot scheme in Cheshire are rolled out to the rest of the nation in due course.
The campaign against middle-lane hogging in Cheshire concluded at the end of October.
Eric Rogers writes on car technology and road legislation.
He runs Dash Witness, a dashboard camera company.