Illustration: Chelsea Beck (G/O Media)

It’s summer now, and you know what that means: time to pack up some beach clothes, a bathing suit, a cooler, a couple good books, a bag of plastic beach toys, the kids’ floaties, the kids’ bathing suits, several large towels, a beach umbrella, one of those plastic sand screws you use to plant a beach umbrella, the boogie board you bought last summer immediately before the weather turned shitty and used exactly once, sunscreen, sun tan lotion, various toiletries, cell-phone charging cables, your laptop (just in case), the kids’ handheld gaming device (fine, whatever, if that’s how you want to spend your vacation, be my guest), a corkscrew (they never have those, remember), and also the kids, and head down to the beach for some sun and fun!

For many of us, that will mean loading this heap of crap into or onto a vehicle and taking to the interstate highways of this great nation, to jostle with truckers and commuters and thousands upon thousands of other vacation-goers for supremacy on the open road. For far too many of us, this journey will include the agony of miserable traffic and inexplicable snarls and the rage-fueled daredevilry of other long-distance drivers. Vacation road trips should be breezy and blissful, but the reality of sharing interstate highways with other drivers plain sucks, in large part because too many of us fail to observe some pretty simple rules of the road, designed to make the highways operate in a safe and coherent and dependable way. I, a man who has spent far too much of the past year driving thousands of miles for gloomy non-vacation reasons, am here to articulate those rules in plain English, so that commuters and vacationers alike may all follow them together.

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These rules assume that you already understand, like, how to operate a vehicle and what the various buttons do and what the various signs mean. Use the gas pedal to accelerate; use the turn signal to indicate a change of lanes; use the brake pedal to slow or stop your car; use the horn to communicate pure, uncontrollable, murderous rage. Armed with those basics, the following rules of the road should be a piece of cake. Let’s begin.

Use The Left Lane To Pass Slower Traffic In The Right Lane

The multiple lanes of an interstate highway allow the highway to handle higher volumes of vehicles, and they allow different drivers to go at different speeds. We know this because many stretches of highway include both speed limits and minimum speeds, and most include signs directing slower traffic to use the right lane. The left lane, because it includes fewer on and off ramps, is designated as the passing lane. Use it to pass slower traffic in the right lane. When not passing slower traffic in the right lane, it is a good idea to remove yourself from the left lane, so that it may retain its important purpose as the lane for passing slower traffic.

When Passing Slower Traffic In The Right Lane, Drive Faster Than The Slower Traffic

Generally speaking, it is only possible to pass slower traffic by driving faster than the slower traffic. Therefore, if you move your vehicle into the left lane to pass slower traffic, you will need to accelerate, because that is the surest way of completing a pass. Yes, you could wait for drivers in the right lane to randomly and inexplicably slow down, or perhaps to hurtle into a fiery accident, but since neither of those things are likely to happen, and since you are actively engaged in a passing maneuver, you will need to accelerate.

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Also, because the left lane is for faster traffic and the right lane is for slower traffic, you will need to ensure that you are not accidentally bringing slower traffic into the left lane by moving your vehicle in front of a driver going faster than you. You will do this by accelerating into the left lane. Please do so carefully but decisively.

Even though everyone is always very thoughtful and careful to observe these first two common sense rules, sometimes a driver will encounter slower traffic not in the right lane, but in the left lane. It happens! You yourself have probably been on both ends of this type of situation. Stay calm!

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When Approaching The Rear Of A Slower Vehicle In The Left Lane, Give The Driver Enough Space And Time To Move Into The Right Lane

Sometimes you may approach the rear of a vehicle that is engaged in a passing maneuver—you will know they are passing because they are in the left lane—but at a slower speed than your preferred speed. While this can be annoying, it is also usually resolved reasonably quickly when the driver of the slower vehicle remembers to adhere to Rules 1 and 2, and accelerates to complete the pass before promptly moving back into the right lane. Tailgating is not likely to make this process go any faster, and is likely to fluster and alarm the driver of the slower vehicle. Also tailgating is far more dangerous for you, the tailgater, than it is for the slower vehicle, and is therefore a stupid and pointless risk.

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Please allow the slower driver time and respectful distance to complete their pass, which naturally will end with them moving back into the right lane. Certainly do not leap into the right lane the moment a crack of daylight appears and pound the gas to the floor like a frothing maniac. Right-lane passing is acceptable under certain circumstances but left-lane passing is preferable, and you should give the situation a fair chance to resolve itself on reasonable terms. It’s safer for everyone!

When A Faster Vehicle Approaches The Rear Of Your Vehicle While Passing, Observe Rules 1 And 2

It’s worth reiterating. You are doing the right thing by using the left lane for passing, which after all is what it is for. Once you have completed your pass, if you then remain in the left lane you have switched over to cruising in the left lane, which is an ethically grey area. But if you are cruising in the left lane in front of faster-moving traffic, you have violated the terms of interstate driving and turned the right lane into the passing lane, which is bad both for those accustomed to passing in the left lane and those drivers who are coasting in the right lane. Slower traffic in the right lane should not have to endure faster traffic darting in and out of its path, and drivers accustomed to passing on the left should not have to contend with the right lane’s slower traffic while passing.

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The correct way to do this is, as soon as you notice faster traffic behind you in the left lane, turn your right signal on to indicate that you will be moving to the right as soon as the opportunity arises; then complete your pass as decisively and safely as possible.

When Passing A Vehicle That Has Moved Out Of Your Way In The Left Lane, Observe Rule 2

Cruise control is a wonderful thing. It allows you to choose a speed, program it into your vehicle, and give your foot a break from operating the gas pedal. It also causes your car to move at one steady speed, which is useful to the vehicles around you for determining whether your intended speed is slower than their intended speed, necessitating a pass. When driving on an interstate highway in a vehicle equipped with cruise control, it is a good idea to use it.

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But it’s important to note that the discrepancy between one driver’s intended speed and another driver’s intended speed is not necessarily sufficient for a passing maneuver. For example, if you are driving 80 miles per hour, it will take you 45 seconds to cover one mile of road. If another driver is driving 81 miles per hour, it will take that driver 44.4444444 seconds to cover that same mile of road. Here is a hyper-accurate scientific illustration of two cars that have driven side-by-side for one mile, one at 80 miles per hour and the other at 81 miles per hour:

The eyelash in the left lane is uh roadkill.
Illustration: Chris Thompson (Deadspin)

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Here we can see in Figure 1 that the vehicle traveling 81 miles per hour has not covered enough relative distance to complete a passing maneuver, even after one whole mile. This becomes problematic for two reasons; first, the vehicle on the left will need something like three miles of road to complete the pass, which is unrealistic on the busy interstate highways of summer travel season; second, the vehicle on the right will have a vehicle immediately to its left for at least a whole mile, and possibly more than three miles, during which time the driver of the slower vehicle will not be able to pass slower traffic in the right lane without slowing down. And as Rule 2 makes very clear, we do not slow down to pass. We accelerate to pass.

So! When passing a vehicle that has moved out of your way, in order to facilitate the timely completion of your own passing maneuver and as a courtesy to the other driver, accelerate. A good shorthand way of remembering this rule is as follows: Your Cruising Speed Is Not Necessarily The Same As Your Passing Speed. If you repeat this to yourself every ten seconds for the duration of your road trip, you are unlikely to forget it when the moment comes.

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When Passing In The Right Lane, Allow For Much More Room Than You Would For A Left-Lane Pass

If everyone is following these logical common-sense rules of the road, right-lane passes should be exceedingly rare. There are, however, times when they are inevitable. When slower traffic moves left in order to use the rare left exit, for example, or when a comprehensive, catastrophic series of mechanical failures prevents another driver from accelerating, braking, changing lanes, or helpfully steering their car into a ravine. Or when driving anywhere in the state of Maryland.

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When passing on the right, it’s important to remember that the right lane is the lane for slower traffic, and so distances will close more quickly. It’s also important to remember that drivers of slower-moving vehicles in the right lane are doing nothing wrong, and must not be harried or punished for their sensible choice to use the road as intended. Tailgating is never appropriate, but it is doubly inappropriate when the vehicle you are tailgating is cruising in the right lane. Similarly, seeing a vehicle zooming up in your rearview mirror can cause quite a lot of anxiety, and anxiety on the roads is an unsafe travel condition. Please do not subject peaceful right-lane drivers to pressure and anxiety so that you can rip off a dangerous high-speed pass in the lane for slower traffic. Before you pass on the right, be sure that there is ample space to do so without terrorizing other drivers, and commit yourself to accelerating decisively enough to complete your pass without creating danger for the drivers around you.

While Tailgating Is Rude And Reckless, Brake-Checking Is Pure Homicidal Scumbaggery

Tailgaters: aren’t they the worst? Who among us hasn’t fantasized about an aggressive tailgater losing control of their vehicle, leaving the road, and pinwheeling into a nearby active volcano? No one should tailgate, because tailgating is reckless and dangerous and dumb. Instead of tailgating, try taking a few deep breaths and learning to control yourself.

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There is only one maneuver that is ever dumber and more reckless and dangerous than tailgating, and it’s the dreaded brake-check, the fool’s response to tailgating. I was on an interstate highway recently, several cars behind and a lane to the right of two drivers who were engaged in a game of psychotic brinksmanship in the left lane. The driver in front, in a late model red Nissan Maxima with Georgia plates, had accelerated to something like 90 miles per hour; the driver behind, in a white Ford Explorer, was following just inches from the Maxima’s rear bumper. The Maxima, either having snapped or having successfully laid his insane trap, suddenly jammed his brakes and dropped from 90 miles per hour to, no shit, 35 miles per hour, in the left lane of a stretch of highway with a 70 miles-per-hour speed limit. The Explorer miraculously did not slam into the rear of the Maxima, but in order to avoid doing so the driver had to swerve into the right lane; drivers in both lanes then had to smash their own brakes, and a freight truck carrying a load of cars in the right lane had to swerve onto the shoulder and overrun the vehicles in front of him in order to avoid a massive, deadly accident. The driver of the Maxima, having caused incredible chaos on the road around him, promptly hammered the gas and blew off into the distance.

The thing about tailgating is, it’s rude and dangerous but it’s actually not real dangerous for the driver in the front vehicle, so long as they focus on the road in front and to either side. Brake-checking, for however cathartic it may seem, is the driver in front making a choice to transfer to him/herself a large portion of the danger created by and posed to the tailgater. If what you dislike about being tailgated is the threat that you will be rear-ended, slamming on your brakes is the exact dumbest way to handle it. This would be like disliking heights because you are afraid of falling, and handling that by deliberately throwing yourself off your own roof. It’s a good way to end up badly hurt, and also a tremendously stupid way of ending up badly hurt.

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These aren’t the only good and sensible rules of the road—brake to slow your vehicle for exiting after you’ve entered the exit lane—but they provide a framework for the most important part of interstate highway travel, which is traveling in a forward motion without impeding, harassing, endangering, or otherwise infuriating other travelers. Please print this blog and include it with all the other crap you and your family are hauling to the oceanside this summer.