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Unsafe Lane Changes – The Problem of Lane Changes in Traffic

People are ticketed for making an unsafe lane change and they wonder why when they were simply merging lanes in heavy traffic. Then, if you fail to make space for an unmarked police car to change lanes into your lane, chances are you’ll be ticketed for another offence. The problem of how to handle lane changes in traffic is guided by law and we’re here to try and sort it out.

If you set out to move from one lane to the other, you need to ensure your action complies with the provisions of the Motor Vehicle Act. Section 151(a) stipulates that you can only change lanes when it is safe to do so. This seems obvious because everything you do as a driver should be done safely, but the duty with respect to lane changes exists to ensure there is a way to regulate the offence of failing in this duty. It’s specifically stated to ensure that if you don’t change lanes when it’s safe, you can be ticketed and convicted.

Is zipper merging prohibited in BC?

The more complex aspect of section 151(a) is the prohibition on affecting other traffic. You cannot change lanes when it will affect the travel of another vehicle. The specific prohibition is that your lane change must “in no way affect the travel of another vehicle.”

How is this even possible? If you change into the other lane and another vehicle is approaching, even if it’s 50 meters behind you, you may affect it. But more concerning is when you change lanes to squeeze into another lane in heavy traffic. It’s a regular thing that we do on the roads in BC every day. Zipper-style merging seems to be prohibited by section 151(a) of the Motor Vehicle Act because your lane change will inevitably affect the travel of the vehicle that ends up behind you.

Technically you could be ticketed for changing lanes to merge from one lane to the other in traffic or simply when changing lanes to get to the lane you need while in traffic because your lane change will affect the travel of another vehicle.

They won’t let me in!

In this situation, changing lanes or even merging in traffic, it takes two to tango. There is the vehicle changing lanes and the one behind which is affected. If their travel is “affected” then the vehicle changing lanes should not change lanes. But does that give them the right to close the space such that the lane-changer can’t come into the lane?

No. If you intentionally block someone who is signalling to change lanes and you could safely back off, in most circumstances you have a duty to do so. Closing the space to block a lane-changing car may be an offence and we have seen people ticketed for this as well.

Section 144(1)(b) of the Motor Vehicle Act prohibits driving without reasonable consideration for others. Think for a moment about the word “reasonable” in the context of making space for someone who signals a lane change in front of you to your lane. If there a good reason not to let them in, such as some safety concern, then that may be a justification but otherwise it comes down to fairness and the obligation to work with other road users to get safely down the road.

Simply put, if you fail to make space for someone who can safely change into your lane, you may commit the offence of driving without reasonable consideration, even if their lane change is prohibited because it may affect your travel.

Damned if you do

It might feel on first blush that these two Motor Vehicle Act provisions are in conflict. In a sense they are because by making space for a lane-changing vehicle, you are facilitating that driver to commit an offence under section 151(a). If you don’t let them in, you are committing the offence under section 144(1)(b). In the end, however, the rules govern the person behind the wheel and it is not your job as a driver to attempt to force others to comply with the law.

Thankfully, traffic officers in BC are not likely to ticket a driver who makes a safe lane change, even if it does affect the travel of others. People who are ticketed for merging in heavy traffic are likely to have done so unsafely in the opinion of the ticketing officer. Even if done safely, however, a conviction may be upheld simply because the lane change affected the travel of another vehicle.

If you obstinately refuse to allow someone to change lanes by blocking the space, you’re more likely to get pulled over and ticketed, however. It is not difficult for most BC traffic officers to explain to the court the driving behaviour they observed which amounted to a failure to show reasonable consideration.

If you receive any traffic ticket in British Columbia, give us a call. We’re the original BC Driving Lawyers. Our lawyers have been successfully defending traffic tickets for 25 years and we’d love to hear from you.