Keeping It between the Lines

Officer Fife is driving one car length behind Briscoe Darling at noon on a sunny day when he sees the tires on the right side of Darling’s car touch the fog line that borders Darling’s lane to the right. Darling drives on the fog line for a couple of seconds before his tires re-enter the unmarked portion of the lane. A half mile later, Darling’s tires again touch the fog line for a few seconds.

Officer Fife is driving one car length behind Charlene Darling at noon on a sunny day when he sees the tires on the right side of Darling’s car cross over the fog line that borders Darling’s lane to the right. Darling immediately moves her car back into the unmarked portion of the lane.

Officer Fife is driving one car length behind Mitch Darling at 9 a.m. on a cold winter morning when he sees the tires on the right side of Darling’s car cross over the fog line that border’s Darling’s lane to the right.  After a few seconds, Darling moves his car back into the unmarked portion of the lane. Officer Fife is aware that the road the two are traveling is icy in spots.

Officer Fife is a stickler for compliance with motor vehicle laws.  He believes it is his duty to stop anyone who commits a traffic offense, no matter how minor. Which Darling or Darlings may he lawfully stop, and why?

G.S. 20-146(d)(1) requires that vehicles “be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane.” Thus, the first issue for Officer Fife’s consideration is whether the line marking the lane is within or outside of the driver’s lane. A famous law professor recently characterized this question as being akin to a mathematician’s consideration of closed or open intervals and noted that there was “deep disagreement among courts on this question.” Since I’m no mathematician, and this is North Carolina, I’ll avoid the mathematical comparisons and in favor of Fife, the Darlings, and North Carolina law.

Driving on the lane line. Merely touching the lane dividing line or driving on top of it apparently does not run afoul of G.S. 20-146(d)(1). The North Carolina court of appeals determined in State v. Peele, 196 N.C. App. 668 (2009), that the “float[ing]” of a driver’s truck to the dotted line and back to the fog line on a single occasion did not provide reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation. In State v. Kochuck, 366 N.C. 549 (2013) (per curiam, adopting dissenting opinion below), the court considered the totality of the circumstances and relied upon precedent governing weaving within a lane to determine that reasonable suspicion supported the stop of the defendant’s vehicle after the vehicle “momentarily crossed the right dotted line once while in the middle lane” and “later drove on the fog line twice.” See Kochuck, __ N.C. App. ___, ___ 741 S.E.2d 327, 329 (2012) (Beasley, J., dissenting).

Driving over the lane line.  Crossing the line demarcating a lane, even once, does provide reasonable suspicion supporting a traffic stop. In State v. Osterhoudt, ___ N.C. App. ___, 731 S.E.2d 454 (2012), for example, the court held that a trooper’s observation of a defendant driving over a double yellow line when turning right provided a reasonable basis for concluding that the defendant violated G.S. 20-146(d)(1).  Similarly, in State v. Hudson, 206 N.C. App. 482 (2010), the court held that an officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle after seeing his truck twice cross the center and fog lines.

As near as practicable.  As previously noted, G.S. 20-146(d)(1) requires that a vehicle be driven “as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane.” Violation of this provision constitutes negligence per se in a civil action based on injuries or damages resulting from a vehicle’s failure to stay within its lane. A defendant in a civil action may rebut the inference of negligence in such an action by showing that the violation resulted from causes other than his or her own negligence, such as such as the presence of ice, a person, an animal, or another obstruction in the roadway. While no criminal case in North Carolina analyzes the “as near as practicable” qualifier, it seems reasonable to equate it to the same types of evidence that rebut the presumption of negligence in a civil action.

The Court of Appeals of Idaho in State v. Neal, __ P.3d __ (October 15, 2014), recently construed the meaning of “as nearly as practicable” under its lane law in a similar manner. In rejecting the defendant’s argument that Idaho’s statute permitted all sorts of minor deviations from one’s lane, the court explained:

In our view . . . the term “practicable” is unambiguous. It is defined as “able to be done or put into practice successfully,” NEW OXFORD AMERICAN DICTIONARY 1338 (2001), and as “feasible in the circumstances,” BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 1172 (6th ed.1990). These definitions are not consistent with Neal’s contention that “as nearly as practicable” creates a safe harbor permitting a person to occasionally leave his lane, without any apparent need, because doing so falls within the wide spectrum of normal driving behavior. We need not, at this juncture, describe all of the weather conditions, road conditions, behavior of other drivers, or other hazards that might justify a driver in leaving the lane. Here, there is simply nothing in the record to show that Neal left his lane because staying within his lane was not “practicable.”

 Back to the Darlings

Officer Fife has no reasonably objective basis for stopping Brisco Darling as driving on the lane lines is not a violation of G.S. 20-146(d)(1).

Charlene Darling should prepare for the blue lights as Officer Fife’s observations provide reasonable suspicion for a stop.

As for Mitch Darling, reasonable minds could disagree. Officer Fife does not know whether Mitch Darling drove outside of his lane because he skidded on ice. Arguably, Officer Fife could cross the relatively low reasonable suspicion threshold based on his observation of the tires crossing the fog line, without considering whether Mitch could have prevented that from occurring. On the other hand, has anyone seen a North Carolinian drive on ice?  If all Mitch did was briefly leave his lane, he might deserve commendation rather than citation.

14 thoughts on “Keeping It between the Lines”

    • Devils Advocate: Doesn’t say what the speed limit is. So, if it’s like a 15mph or a 25mph zone it might not be following too closely 😀

  1. The courts have failed to discuss or acknowledge what is “normal driving behavior” for a particular section of roadway. Essentially every community has streets and hgihways where the lane markers are worn completely away from normal driving behavior. Not all lanes are the same width, some are so narrow, particularly in rural communities, that large trucks cannot meet and pass oncoming traffic without both vehicles driving over the fog lines. There are also road designs, or lack of proper design, that contribute to vehicles driving over the lane markers. The Osterhoudt case is a perfect exsample. The intersection was designed so poorly that regular sized vehicles making the same turn as the defendant could not do so without driving into the turning lane. The trial court even commented that it could not make the turn without the same difficulty. Clearly normal drivng behavior was relevant in this context, but was ignored by the court. Otto is yet another example of normal driving behavior. For over a mile, Otto operated in her lane on a straight portion of the highway without any weaving. Only when she negotiated two curves, one sharp and the other gradual did she weave in her lane of travel, never touching any lane marker. At all times, she traveled at the speed limit. Aerial photos depicted the roadway and curves and the record contained the width of the vehicle as it related to the width of the lane. She had approximately 18 inches on each side of her SUV and a lane marker. The court failed to acknowldge these facts and how they play into normal driving behavior. The overwhelming majoirty of these cases involve impaired driving, apparently an exception to the Fourth Amendment.

  2. Thus, two cars, one driving east, the other west, both driving along with one tire on the center line meet in a wreck. So if neither broke the rule of law, who is at fault? Did they have a perfectly legal head on wreck, and which if either, had any obligation to yield to the other.

    The pedestrian, walking just outside the “fog” line was hit by a car mirror in the sharp curve that was on the line as well. Neither driver nor pedestrian had time to move out of harm’s way.

    Is the point of measurement the tire or the fender or the mirror, and is it the footprint or the elbow?

  3. Is it the nature and spirit of the law to be protective, or a way around the protections of ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ laws, and easy source of easy revenue?

  4. This is an area that definitely needs more consideration from our legislature, especially considering as other posters have commented the nature of some of these roads (either curvy, narrow roads; or, roads with no shoulder/sidewalk for pedestrians). If civilly someone is not at fault for a crash because the person was driving “on” the fog line, or because they crossed a center line or were ON a center line due to the nature of the road itself, then the state must be at fault for designing the roads poorly.

    I’ve driven F-150s, and Scion tCs, and there are several roads I know of where people make a right hand turn, and swing wide left like they’re driving a tractor-trailer. There’s rarely any need. I can negotiate the same turns by applying proper driving technique that is taught during basic driver’s ed. It seems like most of these lane deviations we encounter in our “every day” driving are not a result of “poor” road designs, but poor driving skills. People want to drive with one hand, and as a result you can’t steer the vehicle as well. They either have a cell phone or a coffee cup in one hand and can’t be bothered to put it down.

    I’m not saying EVERY time someone crosses a line or rides on the line it should be a violation, but if someone is driving down the road and they are riding on the line multiple times they need to pay better attention to the road, and the officer’s should be able to stop them for a violation because that is potentially dangerous to others.

  5. I always enjoy your posts but beg to differ on your comment that “crossing the line demarcating a lane even once does provide reasonable suspicion” I submit that it depends upon which line and which of our appellate courts considers the issue.
    1) Double Yellow Line-YES;
    3)FOG LINE -NOT NECESSARILY-PER THE ABOVE.I also read OSTERHOUDT as controlled by crossing the double yellow. In sum “once ain’t necessarily enough”
    Just my two cents

  6. I have been driving for a very long time. I have, from time to time, crossed the fog line or center line, and I have NEVER been impaired while driving. As an officer, when I observe someone cross a line, it draws my attention and I continue to watch the driving. I believe that after a few minutes of observation, a reasonable officer can determine if a traffic stop should be made or not. If the driver is drifting, and appears to be tired, or is having some other issue, we always have the Community Caretaking Doctrine. Just a thought…

  7. Officer’s discretion as to the amount of vehicular and pedestrian traffic (public safety issue), number of times, grossly crossing the line(s) versus merely touching, time of day (or night), day of the week. There are a number of variables to consider prior to effecting a stop in situations like this. If there is no immediate danger to others or the driver him/herself it would be best to observe further actions by the driver of the vehicle which would lend more credence to the stop. If anyone says they’ve never touched or crossed lines while driving, then they are either being untruthful or they only drive over unmarked, dirt roads. It’s inevitable. There are a host of distractions both inside and out of the automobile. Letter of the law versus the “spirit” of the law. It’s my belief that Officer Fife may be a little over zealous and may be viewed as such not just by citizens and co-workers, but the courts alike.

  8. Officer Fife must be that communities cop of the year..In this state even if found “innocent” of charges you STILL must pay court fees, wonderfully punishing system we have here.

    Yes, $275 later and my first ticket EVER in 30 years of driving..A bit bitter..Welcome to NC.

    My question for the officers here regards the right/left turn lanes that are also new to me here, Some of these turn lanes have a break between the double yellow and a solid white line, In my new city (Mooresville) there is seldom room for another vehicle to join those waiting to turn, meaning the break between lines has a vehicle occupying that space, is it lawful to cross the double yellow to get in line or are we expected to pass our turn and turn around when able to? Or are we expected to hold up traffic behind us to wait for that turn lane to clear? I am trying to avoid another costly trip to court due to ignorance of the law.

  9. Was recently ticketed in NC for “travel without keeping the vehicle on the right half of the highway” G.S. 20-146(a) cited. Our county recently installed “speed cushions” on a road, and I left my lane in a low-lit curve around 9:00pm to avoid running over this massive black thing in the road that I knew I hadn’t seen there before… Officer immediately pulled out of a nearby side street to write me a citation, no warning. University police I might add. Seems off

  10. heres a scenario…………a motorcycle crashes in a small ditch on the right shoulder. rider is thrown off and is half in the roadway, half in the ditch. motorcyclist behind him breaks and goes into a skid. rider 2 realizes hes going to hit rider 1 in the roadway and he swurves to the right and choosed to hit rider 1’s motorycle. rrider 2 hits rider 1’s bike and crashes too. NC Trooper writes both riders for failure to maintain lane. Is this statute applicable?


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