What defines a slow-moving vehicle?

Q: I’ve always wondered about the five-car rule when you are driving the speed limit. I pull over as I don’t like being in front of aggressive drivers, but is that illegal too, when you aren’t technically a slow-moving vehicle?

A: Sometimes a question, instead of prompting an answer, generates more questions. It’s like asking, “What is the meaning of life? Are we alone in the universe? Is bowling a game or a sport?”

Before we get to more questions or answers, let’s do a quick review of the “five-car rule.” The law says that on a two-lane highway where passing is unsafe, a slow-moving vehicle shall turn off the roadway at a safe location if there are five or more vehicles in a line behind them. The law then defines a slow-moving vehicle as one traveling at a speed slower than “the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place.”

In your question, you mentioned that if you’re going the speed limit “you aren’t technically a slow-moving vehicle,” but I’m not sure that’s true. This particular law doesn’t mention anything about speed limits, so one interpretation could be that if you’re driving 50 mph on a 50-mph highway, and there are five cars behind you anxious to drive 60 mph at their first opportunity, you’re a slow-moving vehicle.

I don’t like that interpretation because it seems to implicitly endorse speeding, but how much I like a law is irrelevant to its existence. I will note that the law doesn’t require you to move over for the fastest drivers, but for those traveling at the normal flow of traffic.

What, then, is normal? Is it based on the posted speed limit or is it what most drivers are doing at the moment? The law includes the phrase, “at the particular time and place,” which would suggest that it’s based more on driver behavior than the speed limit. Does that include speeding drivers? If it does, let’s push this idea to its limits.

Recall our 50-mph highway. A driver who is traveling at 60 mph but delaying five vehicles that would rather drive 65 mph could theoretically be issued traffic infractions for both speeding and being a slow-moving vehicle. I can’t imagine an officer ever writing those two tickets together, but if it did happen, I’d want to be in the courtroom when the driver contests at least one of those tickets.

Even though it wasn’t part of your question, I’d also like to ask, “What is a safe turn-out?” No matter how you interpret “slow-moving vehicle” and “normal” in the context of this law, it doesn’t feel good to have a stack of vehicles putting pressure on you. You’re making a good decision when you pull over, but I’d also caution drivers to not let that pressure push them to get off the road under poor circumstances.

A safe pull-out needs to be long enough for you to get fully off the highway without braking so hard that you create a chain reaction in the vehicles behind you. It also needs enough room to let you get back up to speed without creating a hazard, and in a location that provides drivers on the road enough visibility to see you pulling back onto the road.

As to the other three questions, the meaning of life is to be kind (especially while driving), we are not alone (but during rush hour you might wish you were), and bowling might be a sport for some people, but my two-digit final score suggests that when I play, it’s a game.

Doug Dahl writes The Wise Drive column for this newspaper weekly. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.