“Are you one of those guys that zips past me in stopped traffic?”
“That looks so dangerous! Aren’t you scared?”
“One of these days, I’m just going to open my door…”
California motorcyclists hear stuff like this a lot, as it seems that many California motorists have a real problem with motorcyclists lane-splitting.
Sucks to be them. Not only can they not bypass stopped and slowed traffic—and spare themselves hundreds of hours a year stuck in the endless jams that snarl California roadways—they can’t stop us from doing it. After all, despite the fact that we’re in America, where if ‘what I’m doing isn’t affecting you, so mind your own business’ is supposedly a way of life, we still like to punish those who are having fun we can’t (or won’t) have, whether it’s assault rifles, heroin, barbecuing spotted owls or riding on two wheels (or one wheel). Unlike some of those other activates, lane-splitting* is legal in California.
“Lane Splitting” is the commonly used term for riding a motorcycle or scooter between two lanes of slow or stopped traffic. It’s not a legal term—it appears nowhere in the California Vehicle Code (CVC), nor do terms like “white lining,” “lane sharing,” “Botts Dotting” or “Moto Oreo-ing.”** Motorcyclists have probably been doing it since there were two cars and a motorcycle, and in most countries, it’s not just tolerated—it’s expected.
Here in the USA, that’s another story. Only in California is it both legally and culturally tolerated. But why? That would take a legal historian to determine, but the California Highway Patrol (CHP) energetically denies it ever maintained the position that it permitted lane-splitting so air-cooled motorcycles wouldn’t overheat in traffic jams. The CHP also states it has never come out either for or against lane-splitting. My guess is since most of California never gets too hot or too cold to ride in, and it’s constantly jammed somewhere, there are always riders lane-splitting, and they’re hard to catch. Rather than try to enforce the unenforceable, the CHP focuses on behavior that’s actually dangerous. How states like Texas and Florida banned it is actually more mysterious to me.***
Why do we lane-split? And should we be doing it? We do it because…well, because we can. The space is there, we can do it safely, and the benefits are manifold. Besides the obvious joy that comes with leaving traffic slowdowns and jams in our dust, we also expose ourselves to less risk, argues Livermore P.D. officer and motorcycle safety advocate John Hurd. “The worst feeling in the world is being a sitting duck, (exposed to cars approaching stopped traffic from behind). If you get rear-ended in a car, it’s not the end of the world, but on a motorcycle, you’re the crumple zone, so the ability to choose lane position is important.”
While there are few (if any) studies on lane-splitting itself, crash data from major reports—the aged “Hurt” report from the USA, the European Union’s MAIDS study and other, smaller studies done in Europe, England and Australia—show lane-splitting either slightly reduces or slightly increases the crash rate—or it’s a wash. Even when studies show a significant portion of motorcyclists were involved in crashes while lane-splitting, it’s not clear that the act of riding between cars—and not some other factor, like excessive speed or road conditions—wasn’t the cause. An in-depth study of lane-splitting crashes by U.C. Berkeley should be completed this year—and you can expect a slew of bills regulating it to appear in the California legislature.
So: it’s safe, but is it truly legal? You could say it’s not illegal, but why? Isn’t that the same as saying something is legal? There are millions of activities not expressly prohibited by the CVC or other state law, and yet nobody says French kissing is in a “grey area,” or feeding Mallomars to your dog is “technically legal.” California trusts our Thin Blue Line to decide what behaviors are safe and what aren’t. Hurd told me he uses a trinity of VC sections—Unsafe Speed (22350), Following too Closely (21703) and use of Laned Roadways (21658)—to cite riders he deems are lane-splitting in a dangerous manner.
Uh-oh: subjectivity. Governments and other large organizations don’t like the ambiguity of leaving it up to guys like Hurd—he’s been riding since he was six years old, and to a veteran Bay Area rider, cruising in between stopped cars at 15-20 mph may seem safe. But to somebody who hasn’t ridden—or spends more time riding in lightly trafficked areas—that may seem the height of recklessness.
That’s why the members of the California Office of Traffic Safety’s (OTS) Mission-12 Safety Committee, a group of motorcyclists, law-enforcement officers, safety experts, government employees and other stakeholders, developed a set of guidelines for lane-splitting (among other safety initiatives). The guidelines were developed over many months of meetings, both in the large committee and subcommittees. A number of Bay Area riders, including Hurd and Bay Area Rider’s Forum (BARF) owner Bud Kobza contributed, and see the posting of these guidelines on the CHP and OTS websites as a major victory.
The guidelines do several things. First, they inform other road users that “lane splitting in a safe and prudent manner is not illegal in the state of California,” and also tell drivers to not try to block motorcyclists from doing it. That’s important—according to a U.C. study, almost half of California’s drivers either think lane-splitting is illegal or don’t know the law, and many of them even turn vigilante, attempting to block riders. The guidelines also tell riders what they “should” do when lane-splitting: keep the speed differential under 10 mph, stay between lanes one and two, be respectful and reasonable. I wish they also could tell people to stay in the center of their lanes and not drift right or left. Oh, and maybe do something about those giant truck mirrors.
Posting the guidelines was big news—websites, T.V. news stations and radio programs were buzzing the week I wrote this. It ran on newspaper front pages. Judging by the comments from readers, viewers and listeners, lane-splitting does not make motorcycling popular in the public eye. When asked by the U.C. surveyors, car drivers, by a very wide margin, disapprove of the practice. When asked why, the two largest numbers of responses are either that they think it’s dangerous (which it isn’t) or that it’s scary (WTF? You’re in a car). Hey, we live in a facts-optional society, but ignorant and silly people vote, too; should we fear for our lane-splitting privileges?
“If somebody wanted to outlaw it, it would take a long time,” Hurd told me. Passing laws is a long process, with many roadblocks—committees, lobbyists, political parties and grumpy governors. To get a law passed you need strong support from the public as well as government and other large organizations, and though there have been bills like this in the past, right now, Hurd tells me that “nobody wants to start that process…not OTS, AMA, DMV or CHP.” If they do crop up, ABATE’s California chapter has already crushed two and is ready for more, and AMA spokesperson Peter terHorst said that that organization will “work with established clubs and groups in that area” to defend motorcycle rights. As you may know, a bill to restrict lane splitting was just recently introduced, and subsequently withdrawn, in the California legislature.
As secure as lane-splitting is in California, it’s just as unlikely to spread beyond our Golden borders. It’s explicitly banned in most states, and states that lack laws prohibiting it are culturally intolerant, though motorcyclists report doing it in places like Texas and Chicago. There’s just no way politicians will sign on to something that looks so dangerous to the uninformed, and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation doesn’t help, either—that industry-funded organ doesn’t believe you can maintain a safe space cushion while lane-splitting , so obviously won’t support the practice.
The AMA does not support legalizing lane-splitting, though it isn’t against it, either: “While the AMA does not actively advocate for lane-sharing at the state level, we approve of the concept (saves gas and less wear and tear, says terHorst) and commend California for issuing reasonable lane-sharing guidelines.” But as the huge majority of the Ohio-based AMA’s membership don’t do it—and probably never will—the issue has a very low priority. ABATE is another matter, and is trying to legalize it in other states—both Texas’ and Oregon’s legislatures have seen bills—but efforts have so far been for naught.
Lane-splitting is an important part of the lives of California motorcyclists, many of whom commute 20,000 or more miles a year, much of it in beige-and-silver canyons of slow-moving cars, minivans and SUVs. Some of us (this reporter included) fear the guidelines could lead to more aggressive enforcement, or even a slippery slope to ever-tightening regulation until it’s effectively outlawed. How do we keep it legal? Read the guidelines, be a good ambassador (wave to drivers who pull over, eschew noisy exhausts and keep the speeds down!) educate your friends and family and get politically active. Maybe someday we’ll be in the checkout line and hear:
“I sure am jealous you guys get where you’re going quickly and safely! Maybe I’ll learn to ride too.”
ABATE of California: abate17.org
* I say “lane-splitting” because that’s what I—and everybody I know—has called it for the last 20 years. Some motorcyclists argue we should say “lane-sharing” because it sounds friendlier, or because that’s a more technically accurate term, and some get into this weird technical argument about how lane-sharing and lane-splitting are really two different things according to some unnamed authority, but I am not one to encourage twisting of the English language for political purposes.
** Okay, I made the last two up.
***Yes, I know you think people in Texas and Florida are crazier than in California and will run you over if you try it, which is why it’s illegal in those states, but we have our share of aggressive crazies here, too. I also found no news stories on the Web (road-raging aside) reporting a lane-splitting rider was purposefully run off the road or otherwise interfered with by vengeful drivers.