In Oregon, there are two major statutes which govern the issue of improper lane use. Also, there is a body of Oregon case-law which addresses each of these statutes under specific fact-patterns and circumstances.
First, under the provisions of ORS 811.370(1), a driver must operate his/her vehicle as nearly as possible within a single lane. In other words, the driver must make certain that their movement from one lane into another lane can be made safely.
Second, under the provisions of ORS 811.375(1), changing lanes requires a continuous signal—not less than 100-feet before making a lane change with reasonable safety.
We shall now turn to a discussion of each of these statutes in more detail—along with some examples taken from Oregon case law.
Failure to Drive Within a Single Lane
The very language used by the authors of ORS 811.370 is vitally important to pay attention to when determining whether or not the terms of the statue have actually been violated. For example, in ORS 811.370, the statute discusses a situation where a person “commits the offense of a failure to drive within a lane “…if the person is operating a vehicle upon a roadway that is divided into two or more clearly marked lanes…” But, the statute goes on to say in subsection (a) that a driver must: “Operate the vehicle as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane.” Then, in subsection (b), the statute says that a driver must: “Refrain from moving from that lane until the driver has first made certain that the movement can be made with safety.”
The key words here are: “practicable” and “refrain.” So, the question becomes: “What if a court, a jury, or the DMV cannot come to an express factual finding as to the cause of a departure from the lane of travel? To answer that question, we have to turn to an example.
Example #1: In the case of Frasier v. DMV, 172 Ore. App. 215 (2001), an Oregon court found that it is erroneous legal reasoning to say that any departure from a single lane is automatically a “prima facie” violation of the statute. In this case, the DMV found that the defendant-driver had either caused or contributed to an accident which resulted in the death of two passengers riding in his vehicle. The DMV concluded that by failing to drive within a single lane, the defendant-driver had engaged in a “prima facie” violation of the statute. However, contrary to the DMV’s argument, the court in Frasier argued that there might be forces unrelated to a person’s driving conduct which forces a driver’s car to leave its lane of travel. If so, then the driver did not violate the statute.
The Frasier court defined “practicable” in accordance with the ordinary meaning of the word—which means “possible to practice or perform.” The Frasier court also defined “refrain” in accordance with the ordinary dictionary definition of the word, which requires “holding back,” or “putting a restraint upon,” or “checking or inhibiting an inclination or impulse.”
So, the court in Frasier found that there is a two-part question that needs to be asked and answered.
First, there must be a finding about what “caused” the driver to leave their single lane. Second, the DMV and/or the court have the burden of proving that the driver actually “contributed” to the accident.
In this case, the DMV was required to show that the driver was capable of staying in his/her lane of travel. Neither the trial court nor the DMV had shown that the driver was capable of staying in his own lane at the time of the accident. Hence, the final decision or holding of the court in Frasier was that: “When read in context, the words ‘practicable’ and ‘refrain’ demonstrate that the legislature intended that the statute would not be violated UNLESS the driver could not stay within the lane because of an act or omission that was within his control.” So, the court in Frasier found that there was no “prima facie” evidence that the defendant-driver had violated the statute.
In this case, the facts presented did not show a “prima facie” violation of the statute, because it was unclear whether the driver engaged in an act or omission that was within his control. As a result, the court in Frasier reversed the judgment against the driver and remanded the case back to a lower court for reconsideration.
Example #2: In the case of State of Oregon v. McBroom, 179 Ore. App. 120 (2002), the defendant-driver was charged with driving under the influence of intoxicants. He was stopped by a police officer who saw that the driver had drifted onto the closer of the double yellow dividing lines and stayed on top of that line for 300-feet or more. Based on what he had seen, the officer concluded that the driver had failed to stay within his lane in violation of ORS 811.370. The officer stopped the driver because he had “probable cause.”
The court in McBroom came to the conclusion that “probable cause” has both a “subjective” and “objective” component. In this case, the police officer “subjectively” believed that the driver had violated ORS 811.370. The only question left was the “objective” component—which was: “Whether a reasonable person, on these facts, could conclude that the driver had violated ORS 811.370?”
The defendant-driver argued that as long as he did not cross the double yellow line that ORS 811.370 (1)(a) would authorize two cars—traveling in opposite directions on a two lane road—to both drive on the center line. The court in McBroom disagreed with the defendant driver’s argument and upheld his conviction at the trial court level. Because subsections (a) and (b) should be read together, the facts of this case showed that the officer objectively, subjectively, and reasonably concluded that the defendant-driver was not moving from one lane to another when he failed to stay within his lane. Because the officer had probable cause to believe that the driver had violated ORS 811.370(1) (a) (b), the trail court came to the correct conclusion in deciding that the defendant-driver had both “objectively” and “subjectively” violated ORS 811.370.
Unlawful or Unsignaled Change of Lane
The second major Oregon statute governing the issue of lane use is ORS 811.375. It addresses the issue of the unlawful or unsignaled change of lane. This statute is violated when a driver changes lanes by moving to the right or left when either: (a) The movement cannot be made with reasonable safety or, (b) The driver fails to give an appropriate signal continuously during at least the last 100-feet traveled by the vehicle before changing lanes. Leading case law on this subject emphasizes what a reasonably prudent person—under the circumstances— would do.
Example #1: In Barnum v. Williams, 264 Or. 71 (1972), the court clearly stated that violation of a law or ordinance is negligence per se. The only exception is when a driver who violated a law or ordinance can present evidence that a statute cannot or should not be complied with—under the circumstances—by a person exercising reasonable care for the safety of themselves and others. An emergency does not change the situation. If a driver acts unreasonably in the face of an emergency, then they are negligent. So, an emergency is just one of the circumstances to consider in judging whether a driver behaved reasonably under the circumstances.