Ask a ‘sotan: Why should we get out of the left lane?

Downtown St. Paul
Traffic moves along Interstate 94 near downtown St. Paul.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2014

Ask a ‘sotan is an occasional series exploring the questions from curious Minnesotans about our state. Have a question about life in Minnesota? Ask it here.

We received a ton of reader responses this year asking for help understanding Minnesota’s new hands-free driving law. But we’re also getting some questions about a second new driver-focused measure passed by the Legislature, known as the “left lane law” or “slowpoke law.”

That one’s not as easy to explain, leading one MPR News reader to contact us wondering why Minnesota seems so worried about which lane drivers use.

Every state needs more income. Why don’t we crack down on speeding and unsafe driving and use those fees as state, city and county income? Recent “stay in the right lane” laws have only made it worse. — Jean Gordon

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We talked to the Minnesota State Patrol and collected some data from Minnesota Management and Budget to help us answer this question in two parts.

The ‘left lane law’

Here are the basics. The new law urges motorists to drive in the right lane of any highway or freeway when possible so that the left lane can stay open for passing. However, that should not be interpreted as “move over so the speeders can pass by.”

“There’s nothing in there that says we’re allowing people to speed in the left lane. That’s not what it’s designed for,” Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Gordon Shank told us. “This is actually not a new law, it has been in effect before this year. It was just passed with updated language.”

The law is meant to help improve traffic flow and increase driver safety. If slower vehicles move over to the right as soon as they can, then anyone traveling faster can also move to the right once they’re done passing.

If slower vehicles don’t move to the right, then either traffic builds up, or faster vehicles begin to weave between cars, which is significantly more dangerous.

In fact, almost every state in the country has a law that suggests drivers stay in the right lane until it’s time to pass. Some states are a bit more strict, like Nevada. Starting in 2017, a vehicle in the left lane must move to the right when faster vehicles approach.

It’s important to keep the “whenever practical” part of the law in mind, said Shank. There’s no need to swerve in between a long line of semitrailers, or move to the right when traffic has slowed to a crawl.

How fines work

Besides asking about the slow-poke law, Jean Gordon also wanted more detail on where the money from moving violations go. There are a number of different ways a traffic ticket can be split between different levels of government.

In general, a traffic violation has a base fine, a surcharge and a fine for county law libraries. Then, a number of factors determine how much of that fine is divided up between the different government entities. That includes which police department is involved, where the violation occurred and whether or not a county attorney prosecuted the violation.

Keeping all of that in mind, let’s look at just how much the state generates in fines. In the 2019 state fiscal year, traffic stop violations generated $31 million in fine revenue for the state’s general fund.

That may appear to be a large amount of money, but the general fund brought in $23.7 billion in revenue for the same year. That means the traffic stop violations only generated about .135 percent of the state’s revenue for one year.

Traffic violations may make up a larger part of city and county budgets, but we’re going to focus on the state level for this article.

While fines from State Patrol tickets do go to Minnesota’s general fund, the aim is to prevent traffic crashes and fatalities, Shank said.

“We're not looking at the fine amount, we're looking at the fact that we're stopping someone from driving dangerously,” Shank said. “If we can change behavior by being a presence out there and through enforcement, that’s what we want.”