Hogging Attention

Do middle-lane hoggers deserve the bad press they get?

He’s only too familiar, cruising down the motorway at at a steady 51 mph in his Hyundai or Proton, hat on head, pipe in mouth, tartan rug on rear shelf, blithely oblivious of what’s going on around him while the inside lane is clear way ahead and frustrated drivers are backed up for miles behind impatient to squeeze past in the outside lane.

Middle-lane hoggers are a major source of delay, danger and frustration on Britain’s motorways. Or so we’re told. But does this view really stand up to detailed analysis?

Clearly, it is good driving practice to return to the inside lane (“Lane 1”) after overtaking another vehicle, and one should not remain in the middle lane (“Lane 2”) if Lane 1 is clear. But this needs to be done with a sense of proportion. Some risk is involved in every lane change, so frequent weaving between lanes is not to be encouraged. Also, at busy times, the full capacity of a motorway will only be utilised if traffic uses all three lanes, so inevitably many vehicles are going to stay in Lanes 2 and 3 for prolonged periods.

As usual, the Institute of Advanced Motorists’ manual “Pass Your Advanced Driving Test” gives some sensible advice on the subject:

“Your cruising speed will probably mean that you spend a good proportion of your motorway journey in the centre lane, so move over (after the usual mirror and shoulder check and right-turn signal) when it becomes necessary. Return to the left-hand lane whenever it is reasonably clear after overtaking has been completed”.


“Return to the left when you can, but do not do this so over-zealously that you end up constantly skipping from one lane to another.”

The practice has its origins in the early days of motorways, when most heavy lorries could not maintain cruising speeds much above 40 mph, and there was a significant minority of timid car drivers, often in older, low-powered cars, who didn’t feel comfortable travelling any faster and so were happy to share the “slow lane” with the lorries.

The average driver, in an average family car, that would cruise at around 70 mph but not much faster, then took up a natural “middle-of-the-road” station in the middle lane, leaving the “fast lane” for the minority who had high-powered cars that could comfortably travel faster.

So the traditional and misleading hierarchy of motorway lanes developed, with the lane you occupied depending primarily on your attitude to driving and your type of vehicle. This was never remotely appropriate, and today, when all cars on the market can cruise comfortably at well above 70 mph, and trucks and coaches are speed-limited respectively to 56 mph and 62 mph, it is even less so. The key to correct choice of lane is your position and speed relative to other vehicles on the the motorway.

There are two other important reasons why drivers are inclined to stay in the middle lane when they might be expected to move over. One is that at many junctions, Lane 1 turns into a slip road, with Lane 2 then becoming Lane 1. Therefore, if you don’t want to end up suddenly disappearing up a slip road, it is prudent to move out well in advance when there is an opportunity. The other is that drivers are concerned that, if they move into Lane 1, they will end up being “boxed” behind a truck and be unable to return to Lane 2 to overtake it. The risk of both of these eventualities can be minimised by appropriate observation and anticipation, but they remain genuine concerns.

There are two contrasting situations where the middle-lane hogger may be encountered. The classic one is on a fairly quiet motorway where, after overtaking another vehicle, he inexplicably fails to return to Lane 1 despite it being clear for a mile ahead. Yes, it’s obviously wrong, but if the motorway is quiet and you can pass without difficulty, what problem does it cause? And if you then decisively but not abruptly move over to Lane 1 yourself, the hogger will often take the hint.

The other, and less clear-cut, is where the motorway is fairly busy, but still relatively free-flowing. In this situation it is not uncommon to find a fairly solid line of cars and vans in each of Lanes 2 and 3, with trucks spaced out at 400-yard intervals in Lane 1 and large gaps between them. The capacity of the motorway would clearly be better utilised if more of the cars and vans used Lane 1 but, if the two outer lanes are moving more quickly than the trucks, they would limit their own progress by doing so. Therefore, from an individual point of view, journey time would be extended by using Lane 1, even if overall average progress might be improved.

Arguably worse than middle-lane hogging is the pattern often found in this situation where at least 50% of the traffic is in Lane 3, maintaining insufficient separation distances and with a concertina of brake lights often running back down the line. Progress is rarely any quicker than Lane 2, and perhaps some of these drivers would have a less stressful drive, and lose no time, by moving over to Lane 1.

You can never be totally rigid about applying rules to real-life driving situations, but I would suggest the following as reasonable guidelines for when to move into Lane 1 (or from Lane 3 to Lane 2):

  • If you are travelling at the same speed as vehicles inside you, you should move to the left if there is sufficient space to do so without compromising the two-second margin of safety both behind and ahead of you. If there isn’t a four second gap, then it’s probably best to stay in your lane.
  • If you are obviously gaining ground on vehicles to the left of you, you should move to the left if there is 600 yards or more of clear road ahead of you (approximately one third of a mile). Any less than that and you will need to move out again too quickly. This is clearly a matter of judgment, but this seems a reasonable rule of thumb. But some may criticise a driver not moving left in this situation as a lane-hogger
  • On a busy motorway, where there is heavy traffic in all three lanes and they are all moving at a similar pace, it is best to settle down to a relaxed crusing speed, keeping a good distance from the vehicle in front, and try to minimise lane-changing. Constant jockeying for position and attempting to exploit small gaps will compromise safety and, in such conditions, is unlikely to get you to your destination any quicker. This is recognised by the variable speed limit system on the M25 which exhorts drivers to stay in the same lane except when entering or leaving the motorway.

And, as long as you are actually overtaking either individual vehicles or a line of traffic in Lane 1, it doesn’t matter if vehicles behind you want to travel faster, you have a right to be where you are. But, in this situation, once the vehicles have been passed and it is possible to move into a safe gap in Lane 1, it is clearly prudent and courteous to do so.

In case you wonder what experience I have that qualifies me to express my opinions on this subject, in the course of a driving career lasting over twenty-six years so far, I have driven many thousand miles on motorways, including in the twelve months up to February 2003 doing a sixty-mile round-trip motorway commute every day. I have seen a fair number of people remaining in Lane 2 - or indeed Lane 3 - when they could reasonably have moved to their left, but they are by no means as common as some people claim, and it is very rare that they have either compromised safety or caused significant delay to others.

And I can’t remember the last time I saw a middle-lane hogger travelling more slowly than the typical truck speed, which is what would cause serious problems. It’s also surprising how often, if you move over to Lane 1 either behind or in front of someone who is travelling at a similar pace in Lane 2, it will prompt him to move over too.

In conclusion, while middle-lane hogging is undoubtedly poor driving practice and is to be discouraged, in practice it does not cause the serious problems it is alleged to. On a quiet motorway, there is seldom any difficulty in overtaking, and so little or no delay results. On a busy motorway, it is often a subjective judgment anyway as to what constitutes middle lane hogging, and many drivers’ reluctance to use Lane 1 results from an entirely rational decision to maximise their own progress. The complaint that they fail to do so often stems, at root, from a desire for others to move over and let you past - which ultimately is a somewhat selfish point of view. If you don’t like to see wide open spaces in Lane 1 on otherwise busy motorways, then why don’t you drive in them, rather than expecting others to?

(February 2003)

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