Legalize lane-splitting, with some caveats

Making lane-splitting by motorcyclists legal appears to be the safest route

On the face of it, it seems absolutely insane to allow motorcycles to ignore the lanes on the road and to whiz past cars by going between them. What if the biker misjudges and hits a car because he's too close on one side or another? What if a car moves a little to the left or right — still staying legally within its lane — unaware that a motorcycle is just a couple dozen feet behind and moving up faster than the rest of the traffic?

Lane-splitting isn't legal in the rest of the country. Even in California, the practice occurs, well, between the lines. It's not outlawed, but neither is it officially approved. It's tolerated by law enforcement in most circumstances, though many motorists grumble about it — partly concerned about safety though perhaps also a tad resentful of the smaller vehicles' ability to keep moving even on the I-10 at 8:30 a.m.

It now seems, however, that anti-lane-splitting sentiment runs counter to the facts. A UC Berkeley study released last year by the state Office of Traffic Safety found that lane-splitting motorcyclists were no more likely to be seriously injured than other motorcyclists, as long as they weren't moving too much faster than surrounding traffic — in fact, they were significantly less likely to face such an injury. That might be partly because lane-splitting bikers are generally more careful on the road, according to the study: They wear better helmets, do less speeding and are less likely to be drunk. And although lane-splitting is illegal in most of the United States, it is widely accepted in European countries.

Counterintuitive though it may be, the data suggest that the safest move for California would be to free lane-splitting from its shadowy legal status, permit it, but also regulate it to minimize accidents. A bill to do that, AB 51, passed the Assembly last week. With some adjustments, it should become law. The bill would require lane-splitting bikers to travel no more than 15 mph faster than surrounding traffic (and only up to 50 mph), to prevent the bigger speed differentials that spell danger.

Not that this is a perfect solution. On roads where the speed of surrounding cars varies from place to place and car to car, it could be difficult for motorcyclists to know whether they're within the 15-mph limit. It could be even harder for law enforcement to determine who's breaking the law. And when someone is breaking the law, it's obviously difficult for police to pull an offender over. The bill should include language to study its effects after several years.

But at least regulation would clarify and codify the boundaries of safe lane-splitting for motorcyclists and motorists alike. Blatant speeding would be easy to spot, and liability would be easier to determine. AB 51 makes more sense than continued confusion.

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