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Whether you’re a licensed driver in the United States or a visiting motorist, you’ve likely noticed that Americans tend to pass on the right when they’re impatient with the flow of traffic. So, is it illegal to pass on the right in the United States? Or is it business as usual?

You can pass on the right in many US states, albeit under specific conditions

Countries in the European Union (EU) have outlawed or strongly dissuaded drivers from passing on the right for safety reasons. In the case of the United Kingdom, drivers are expected to pass on the right exclusively. It makes sense, though, given the left-side orientation of driving in the UK. However, you’ve likely seen drivers in the United States regularly pass on the right. 

Well, passing on the right, while dangerous in multiple contexts, isn’t expressly illegal in many states. However, some states forbid or frown on the practice. For example, the state of Maryland forbids overtaking to the right under penalty of citation. That is, with a few caveats. Drivers can pass a vehicle indicating an upcoming left turn as long as it is safe to do so, per Miller & Zois

All 50 states have some derivation of a “keep right” law to maintain a clear passing lane. Yes, that applies to you, the driver in the budget-friendly sedan or lifted pickup truck who thinks cruising at 95 mph in the left lane is a good idea. In case you needed to hear it, it isn’t. Most states require that drivers pass on the left and move over after completing an overtake.

A busy three-lane highway in the US might not make it expressly illegal to pass on the right, but it's frowned upon.
A three-lane highway in the United States | EunikaSopotnicka via iStock

However, while passing on the right isn’t expressly illegal under safe conditions, it’s bad driving etiquette. On a three-lane highway, passing on the right can put you and, more selfishly, other drivers in harm’s way due to a greater likelihood of crashes with other motorists or unforeseen obstacles.

In comparison, driving in Germany, where passing on the right is forbidden (I can hear some of you doing your best German accent screaming “verboten!”), is much safer than driving in the United States. According to Medium, German roads see around 4.2 fatalities per billion kilometers (km) traveled. On the other hand, the United States sees nearly twice as many on-road deaths at around 8.3 per billion km.

Mind you, this is also a country with the famed speed-limit-free highway system, the Autobahn. Of course, the lower fatality rate is attributable to several factors, like population, mass transit availability, and higher vehicle maintenance standards. However, it’s easy to see how a higher standard of driver proficiency can save lives.