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Relevant to Personal Injury, What is the Law Regarding Passing Another Vehicle in Massachusetts?

Car accident injuries are some of the most significant injuries that people encounter in their lives. Speed is often a factor, not only affecting whether people are injured, but also affecting the degree of the injury. Passing another vehicle ordinarily involves accelerating and often traveling on the opposite side of the road. Under this common act, however, major injuries can occur when things go wrong.

Before you first received your driver's license, you took a driver's license test, both the written exam and the actual driving test. In doing so, you were tested on the rules of the road. In preparation for the test, we all either took a class or studied up on the laws as they pertain to driving on roads in Massachusetts. This included knowledge of the rules that apply to passing other vehicles. We have the laws in place, of course, to help us avoid car accidents, personal injuries, injury to others, and property damage.

There is, in fact, a section in a chapter of our Massachusetts General Laws that deals specifically with the issue of passing vehicles while traveling in the same direction. It's very clear. Let's take you through the statute line by line.

First, the statute says as follows: "Except as herein otherwise provided, the driver of a vehicle passing another vehicle traveling in the same direction shall drive a safe distance to the left and such other vehicle and shall not return to the right until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle." In other words, the statute starts by providing that overtaking another vehicle is permitted, and that essentially, reasonable care should be exercised by the passing vehicle.

The statute goes on to say that if the way is of sufficient width for two vehicles to pass, the driver of the leading one shall not unnecessarily obstruct the other. More clarity. The statute provides for what the car being overtaken must do: It must cooperate.

We can all envision the fact pattern that has resulted in this portion of the statute. The vehicle is traveling at a slower speed than the car behind it would like to see. The car behind hits the gas and begins to accelerate, then pulls to the left of the first vehicle in an attempt to overtake it. Vehicle one, annoyed by the second car's action, accelerates, so as to not allow the second car back into the lane of traffic. Such action clearly puts other cars at a safety risk, not to mention the risk created for vehicle two. This portion of the statute provides that vehicle one must allow vehicle to back into traffic. As you may know from reading other entries of this blog, vehicle two's failure to allow vehicle one back into traffic can be considered by a jury as evidence of negligence in a personal injury case.

The statute goes on to say as follows: "If it is not possible to overtake a bicycle or other vehicle at a safe distance in the same lane, the overtaking vehicle shall use all or part of an adjacent lane if it is safe to do so or wait for a safe opportunity to overtake." So, the statute provides that the vehicle waiting to overtake either a bicycle or another vehicle needs not wait forever to pass--but, it must wait until it is safe to do so. The statute specifically allows the passing vehicle to pull into the adjacent lane and then back into the traveling lane. However, regardless of how slowly the other vehicle or bicycle being overtaken is operating, the passing car is not permitted to overtake unless it is safe to do so. The passing motorist's failure to exercise reasonable care would clearly be evidence of negligence in a personal injury matter.

The next sentence states as follows: "Except when overtaking and passing on the right is permitted, the driver of an overtaken vehicle shall give way to the right in favor of the overtaken vehicle on visible signal and shall not increase speed of his vehicle until completely passed by the overtaken vehicle." There is some redundancy in this portion of the statute, but it emphasizes that proper signal must be given by the overtaking vehicle and that the vehicle being overtaken may need to move to the right to allow the other vehicle back into traffic when safe to do so.

Picture the following example for this part of the statute: Vehicle one is driving in the center lane of a three-lane highway. A second car is coming up in the same lane directly behind vehicle one. A third car is operating in the left-hand lane and is experiencing mechanical issues. Vehicle one is maintaining a steady rate of speed. Vehicle two accelerates and pulls to left past vehicle one, but then sees vehicle three slowing had as he is passing vehicle one. While still next to the first car, the second driver attempts to continue the pass, putting on his right signal and signaling to the first car that he intends to pull back into that lane of traffic in order to avoid vehicle three. If safe, this statute provides that the vehicle one should allow the second car back into that lane of traffic, so that it may avoid colliding with the third car. That action may require vehicle one to move into the right lane.

Lastly, the statute deals specifically with passing on the right when allowed. It says: "the driver of a vehicle may, if the roadways free from obstruction and is of sufficient width for two or more lines of moving vehicles, overtake and pass upon the right of another vehicle when the vehicle overtaken is making or about to make a left turn, be upon a one-way street, or be upon any roadway on which traffic is restricted to one direction of movement."

This is a pretty helpful portion of the statute because many people just aren't that clear as to when they are permitted to pass another vehicle on the right. That's not to say they don't pass vehicles on the right--that happens all the time! Yet what I've learned from speaking with clients is that they don't ordinarily understand what's allowed and what's not allowed in regard to right-lane passing. They simply do it because they see other people doing it and have so for years.

So, be clear in your understanding of the statute. There are really only three scenarios where passing on the right is okay:

The first one is when the vehicle ahead is making a left-hand turn. It's okay to pass that vehicle on the right as long as it's safe to do so.

The next is upon a one-way street. Although this is somewhat vague, what I am envisioning in reading this portion of statute is that it's a one-way street with two lanes of traffic. I am not able to envision a situation in which passing on the right on a one-lane, one-way street would be safe.

The final scenario, passing upon a roadway in which traffic is restricted to one direction of movement, is the most common. This is essentially talking about divided highways. Yes, it is legal to pass another vehicle on the right if you are on a divided highway.

This raises a very interesting question regarding highways or major roads in which there are multiple lanes of traffic, but the roadway is not divided (meaning, not restricted to one direction of movement)but there are still multiple lanes of traffic going in each direction. People don't generally understand the technical specifics of this statute and naturally apply the rules of passing on a divided highway to driving on a non-divided highway. Could this be considered negligence in a personal injury case? Well, that determination is ultimately going to be made by the jury, as the group of our peers who are also driving along with the rest of us. It is a violation of the driving law and, therefore, it would clearly be evidence of negligence. The question is how much weight the jury will assign to that fact.

Following the rules of the road is an important step in both being safe and limiting liability. If you've been involved in a car accident and you're wondering what you should do or whether you have a case, consider speaking with a competent Boston personal injury lawyer. Most, like our office, provide free consultations with the attorney. If you'd like to speak with an attorney about your case now, just call our office and we will connect you.

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