Improper Lane Change

Improper lane changes are a common occurrence in the United States, accounting for almost four thousand deaths in the last research report conducted by the Insurance Information Institute. The report also states that improper lane changes are the third leading cause of traffic collision fatalities. The majority of car accidents result in property damage, one of the most dangerous types of accidents.

While it is common to see a vehicle change lanes without a signal, it is something that can have serious consequences. It can result in fines, accidents, road rage, property damage, and unsafe road conditions.  

If you are the victim of an accident, it is important to let officers know immediately. If you are charged with a traffic violation and you believe the officer was wrong you have the option of contesting the citation.

What is an improper lane change?

In general, an improper lane change is moving a car from one lane to the next in an unsafe manner, without signaling, causing dangerous road conditions.  The improper lane change does not have to result in an accident and a driver can still be ticketed for the offense. However, if a driver witnesses an accident and reports the event, officers have a very difficult time proving the event happened, short of another driver being run off the road or an accident occurring.


Some common unsafe lane changes include:

  • Officer determines that the maneuvering of the car endangered other drivers.
  • Passing a slower vehicle too close
  • Forcing a car off the road
  • Maintaining an unsafe amount of distance between the lane-changing vehicle and the other vehicle
  • Weaving through traffic in an unsafe manner, either too fast than the surrounding vehicles or in heavy traffic

Any of these situations can cause an accident and serious injuries to the other driver and passengers.  The cause of unsafe lane changes can be:

  • Failure to use a signal absentmindedly
  • Aggressive drivers
  • Drivers in a hurry
  • Frustrated drivers
  • Distracted drivers

If you find yourself feeling frustrated or distracted, pull over and assess whether driving safely is possible at the moment.  It is perfectly acceptable for a driver to have had a difficult workday and just want to get home, without respect for other vehicles around them.  All drivers experience frustration, distraction, and aggression, however, if a driver thinks it is unsafe to drive during times of frustration or fatigue, it may be time to reassess whether driving is the best activity at the moment.

In contrast, if a driver observes a car in their rear view mirror changing lanes in an unsafe manner, it is important to drive defensively.  This means moving as far away from the vehicle and where it is traveling.  A driver that sees an unsafe driver may need to be a witness if there is a car accident.  If the driver feels comfortable pulling over after witnessing an unsafe lane change that results in an accident, this can help the police officers file a correct and detailed report.

Unsafe lane change laws and violations

Each state will have its own laws regarding safe lane changes and how violations are defined.  In general, one of the leading legal resources for the last fifty years, an unsafe lane change occurs when there are two lanes, clearly marked going in the same direction and that drivers on the roadway must drive “as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane” and remain in that lane until it is safe to move to another lane.  Nearly all states emphasize that whenever changing lanes it is always completed in as safe a manner as possible.


Unsafe lane changes are charged as traffic violations. Usually, it results in a fee. These fees vary from state to state based on the unsafe lane change statutes. The fee is typically several hundred dollars, but if there are factors increasing the dangerousness of the lane change, the fee can be as high as one-thousand dollars.  The dangerousness element is increased when there is heavy traffic, poor weather conditions, slick roads, or speeding.

In addition to a fee, points or flags are placed on your driving record. Usually, points can be removed either from time passing or completing traffic school.  However, if a driver is not eligible for traffic school or the violation does not qualify for traffic school, then the driver’s car insurance premium can be affected.  The more points or flags on a driving record, the higher the car insurance premium.  

Legal defense to improper lane change

If you are cited for an unsafe lane change you have the right to contest it in traffic court. The burden of proof varies from state to state but is typically beyond a reasonable doubt.  The officer that cites the driver must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the lane change was indeed, dangerous, and in violation of the lane change laws of the state.  

If you are in an accident, the officer still must prove that the lane change was unsafe beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, the officer has to prove that the lane change was in fact the cause of the accident.  In order words, but for the lane change, the accident would not have occurred.

Unsafe lane changes can be difficult to defend due to the subjective nature of the event.  A leading source in U.S. law, the officer typically cites a driver for an unsafe lane change based on:

  • The distance the driver is from other cars 
  • The speed of the car changing lanes
  • The traffic flow in relation to the vehicle
  • How far the vehicle is from other objects
  • If the car was attempting to pass on the right-hand side

These elements are based on the officer’s point of view, experience in the field, and distance from the offending vehicle.  Whether a lane change or passing a vehicle is safe can vary from driver to driver and officer to officer based on an individual’s opinion on reasonableness.

A driver can state that there was enough room to complete the lane change using diagrams and any witness testimony.  The cited driver can also provide reasonable explanations as to why the lane change was safe such as clear weather, light traffic, or an unsafe driver was behind them requiring the lane change. Ultimately, a driver must show they are maneuvering their vehicle safely through traffic.

Final Thoughts

Changing lanes when driving from destination to destination is inevitable, it is almost impossible to drive without changing lanes.  With that in mind, it is important to understand the laws of your state in order to avoid being cited for an unsafe lane change. Once you understand the laws in your state, always drive with safety as your top priority.  Before moving your vehicle in any direction, check to make sure it is reasonable to do so.

If any situation, understand that there are options for contesting the citation. Take pictures of the traffic and weather, try to explain to the officer or judge why it was reasonable to make that lane change at the time it was made.  Remember the officer has a high burden to overcome in order to prove that you were unreasonable. Traffic attorneys can help you navigate the traffic court system should you be a victim of an unreasonable citation.  An experienced and skilled traffic attorney is your best resource for more information and questions.

Article by James Finsweet

James Finsweet is a Head of legal department in LawBrother Ltd. At Lawrina, James contributes his experience in law practice and shares opinions on law regulations and news.

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