Generally, motor vehicle drivers must drive on the right half of the roadway—and to the right of oncoming vehicles. This principle is well-established in Oregon’s statutes [ORS 811.295(1)]. There are only a few exceptions to this basic rule.
Limited Exceptions to the Rule
You are required to drive on the right half of the road except when:
- Passing another vehicle going in the same direction as you;
- Driving to the left of center to pass an obstruction;
- a road is marked for one-way traffic;
- A road has 3-marked lanes and the center lane is a passing lane;
- You are turning left;
- Directed by emergency personnel or other persons directing traffic [ORS 811.295(2)].
If There Is No Oncoming Traffic
The absence of oncoming traffic is not relevant to whether a driver committed the traffic infraction of failing to drive on the right side of the road. Leading cases coming out of courts in Oregon have concluded that a driver violates ORS 811.295 by driving on the wrong side of the road—regardless of whether or not there is oncoming traffic [State of Oregon v. Mealer, 129 Or App 456, 460-462 (1994)]. The only caveat is that the standard provided by the statute cannot be relied on to show negligence per se.
The Difference between what is Negligent and what is Reasonable
Since the Oregon legislature has identified a few statutory exceptions to the requirement to drive on the right [ORS 811.295(2)], there are legal questions that need to be addressed. Specifically, there are questions about the issues about what is negligent and what is reasonable. Put it another way, the question becomes: “Is it appropriate and valid for a court to allow evidence of reasonable conduct despite driving on the wrong side of the road?”
There are No Absolutes
As a general rule, Oregon courts have held that the failure to drive on the right half of the road is not negligence per se if the driver was acting as a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances [Tokstad v. Lund, 255 Or 305 (1970) and; Mennis v. Highland Trucking, Inc., 261 Ore 233, 236-238 (1972)]. In reaching a judgment on the questions of negligence and acting in a reasonable manner, a jury will also have to consider the following issues: (1) contributory negligence and highway design; (2) determining what is reasonable by considering the “trinity” of lookout, speed, and control.
Example #1: The questions become more complicated when a jury has to also consider the question of contributory negligence. In other words, two questions can be raised: “Was one of the drivers acting in a more negligent or unreasonable manner in contributing to the accident and injuries?” Also: “Did the design of the highway contribute to the accident?
In 1994, a plaintiff-driver brought a personal injury case when she was injured after colliding with the defendant’s tractor-trailer combination–which swept into her lane and collided with her car. Defendant’s theory was that she (plaintiff) had cut the corner at the curve into the road. As a result of cutting the corner at the curve, she crossed into the northbound lane—causing the collision with the defendant’s pup trailer. In this case, the issue of highway design was also raised (which excused the defendant-driver for leaving his lane of traffic and colliding with plaintiff’s car). The jury returned a general verdict in favor of the defendant [Dyer v. R.E. Christiansen Trucking, Inc. 318 Ore 391, 395-397 (1994)].
NOTE: While operating a vehicle on a curve, on a grade, at an intersection, or at a railroad crossing, a person may not drive to the left side of the center of the roadway when the person’s view is obstructed for such a distance as to create a hazard in the event an approaching vehicle arrives [ORS 811.305(1)]. Exceptions include when the right half of the roadway is obstructed for construction or repair and when the driver makes a lawful left turn [ORS 811.305(2)].
Example #2: In reaching verdict, the jury will have to examine the facts of the particular case. The jury will have to look at the “trinity” of: (1) lookout; (2) speed and; (3) control. Courts in Oregon have consistently held that lookout, speed, and control are interrelated elements (“the trinity”) in determining what is reasonable and what is negligent. Therefore, it is mandatory that the jury consider them together [Mennis v. Highland Trucking, Inc., 261 Ore 233 (1972)].
NOTE: The court in Mennis also examined the issue of contributory negligence and found in favor of the defendant. The court in Mennis stated: “The allegations of contributory negligence were properly submitted to the jury.” Further, the court found that: “Plaintiff knew the road was narrow and that he could expect to meet logging trucks; that he could expect to find the truck in the two gravel trucks in the road; and that he knew it was necessary to either slow down or to stop in order to pass” [Mennis v Highland Trucking, Inc., 261 Ore 233, 238 (1972)]. Therefore, the plaintiff violated the “trinity” of (1) lookout, (2) speed, and, (3) control. As a result of this finding, the jury properly presented a verdict which was in favor of the defendant.
Failure of a Slow Driver to Drive on the Right
A person commits this offense if that person is operating a vehicle at less than the normal speed of traffic [ORS 811:315(1)]. However, this section does not apply when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction—under the rules governing passing [ORS 811.410 to 811.425].
Failure to Keep a Camper, Trailer or Truck in the Right-Lane
A person commits this offense if a person is operating a camper, trailer or truck and fails to keep it in the right lane [ORS 811.325 (1)]. However, this section does not apply under any of the following circumstances: (a) When overtaking or passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction under the rules governing this movement in [ORS 811,410 to 811.425]; (b) When preparing to turn left; (c) When reasonably necessary in response to emergency conditions; (d) to avoid actual or potential traffic moving onto the right lane from an acceleration or merging lane; (e) When necessary to follow traffic control devices that direct use of a lane other than the right lane [ORS 811.325 (2)].
Driving the Wrong Way Around a Traffic Island
A person commits this offense if the person drives their vehicle around a rotary traffic island in any direction except to the right of the island [ORS 811.330].
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