Passing in the right on multiple-lane roads is illegal in Switzerland and the penalties for those caught are severe. However, confusion abounds when it comes to the application of the rule. As more cases are challenged in court the definition of what is acceptable and the penalties evolve. This week, another case concluded setting a new legal precedent on the level of sanctions in some cases.
When the rule was first introduced there was little flexibility. Anyone driving in the right lane past a car in a lane to the left was breaking the law. This even included slowly overtaking on the right when traffic had been reduced to a crawl.
Soon after the rule was introduced many in government began discussing how the rule could be loosened to allow passing on the right when there is dense slow traffic and less congestion in the right lane than on the left. The aim was to improve traffic flow. Out of fear of sanctions drivers were avoiding using unused road capacity in right lanes and it was slowing down traffic at busy times.
Eventually government discussion resulted in a change. From 1 January 2021, it became legal to pass on the right if a queue had formed in the left lane (or in the left and/or middle lane in the case of three-lane motorways). Road users in the right lane could cautiously pass cars to the left in this situation. However, overtaking on the right by swerving out into the right lane and swerving back to the left remained prohibited.
This week’s Federal Supreme Court decision changed nothing regarding what is and isn’t allowed. Overtaking on the right remains prohibited in all cases except when there is slow traffic and queues. However, in some cases it will be punished less severely according to Switzerland’s highest judges. Until now, the penalty for passing on the right was the removal of the offender’s driving licence. This week’s decision by the Federal Supreme Court sets a precedent for not automatically removing driving licences.
In this specific case the driver had overtaken on the right by swerving out into the right lane and swerving back to the left ahead of the passed vehicle, a manoeuvre that is unequivocally illegal. As a result, the driver had had his licence removed for 12 months. However, the court ruled the driver should only be fined CHF 250 because he did not endanger anyone – there was little motorway traffic, the road was dry, visibility was good and the overtaken driver did not have to swerve or brake.
The decision represents a significant narrowing of the interpretation of the law. The Federal Supreme Court said that considering the risks, a narrow interpretation and cautious application of the regulation is warranted.