Traffic jam? Time to split
For most motorists, a commute on a weekday afternoon from Signal Hill in Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles means a 45-minute crawl through stalled traffic and relentless heat.
But for motorcyclists Shear’Ree, 57, and Mark Russell, 17, the trip is a breezy 25-minute jaunt on the 405 and 110 freeways.
Shear’Ree and Russell, who ride Kawasaki Ninja motorcycles, are lane-splitters -- bikers who prefer to drive between lanes. For them, it’s a way of life and a perk of owning two wheels instead of four in a region crammed with bulky, gas-guzzling cars and trucks.
Although maneuvering between lanes of traffic can be dangerous, motorists are often surprised to learn that lane splitting is legal in California, the only state in which this is true.
There are many rationales for lane-splitting: Some motorcyclists do it to evade traffic or to conserve gas and lower emissions; others say they’re helping to ease congestion or keeping their air-cooled bikes from overheating.
But almost all lane-splitting bikers say that the strip between lanes is far more secure than the “sandwich zone” between bumpers. Bikers also said they can better anticipate accidents by lane-splitting.
“Research indicates that if you’re tucked in behind a vehicle on a bike, you can’t see what’s in front of you,” said Harry Hurt, professor emeritus of safety science at USC, who researches motorcycle accidents. “It’s better to be in between cars laterally.”
Some drivers who see a motorcyclist approaching between lanes will ease away from the line to let the biker pass.
But motorcyclists say that many others, who assume the maneuver is illegal, react in frustration. Some tell stories of being trailed or blocked by angry drivers. “When I’m cutting traffic, all of a sudden a car will come over and try to block me,” Russell said. “They think it’s unfair that I’m splitting and will get mad.”
Some motorists see the lane-splitters as overly aggressive and reckless, often veering close to their vehicles, occasionally clipping off a mirror or bumper.
“It’s kind of annoying because you’re sitting there in traffic and sometimes they come out of nowhere within inches of your car,” said Canoga Park resident German Landeros, who drives a Dodge Charger. “They startle you -- it might prompt somebody to slam on their brakes and cause a bigger accident.”
Because lane-splitting is not a code violation, the California Highway Patrol does not track it as a factor in motorcycle accidents.
But according to the state Office of Traffic Safety, there were 397 motorcyclist injuries and fatalities out of 9,472 incidents in 2005 resulting from bikers making unsafe lane changes, passing improperly or following another vehicle too closely, all characteristics associated with lane-splitting.
CHP officers often cite motorcyclists who split lanes while weaving and speeding, said Sgt. Mark Garrett of the CHP’s Southern Division. Less tolerant officers also will cite motorcyclists for crossing the double yellow line between the carpool and fast lanes.
Garrett said CHP officers tend to leave lane-splitters alone as long as they do not impede traffic flow. “We’re not looking to fight someone who’s safely splitting,” he said. Still, lane-sharing is not for everyone.
For those who ride choppers and large cruisers, the narrow lanes of the 405 Freeway can be navigational nightmares. Their bikes’ extended handlebars and saddlebags are more likely to scrape passing cars.
“It’s a riskier than average activity,” said Ray Oches, director of training for the California Motorcyclist Safety Program. “But if you manage that risk well, you can be successful.”
Some lane-splitters acknowledge freeway maneuvering can be dangerous.
Whittier resident George Gonzalez, 25, said he used to split lanes on his Honda CVR 600 sport bike but stopped after he narrowly avoided three accidents. Now, Gonzalez mostly drives his Chevy truck.
“Lane-splitters drive crazier and they’re less careful,” Gonzalez said. “They might see you in your car, but most will just cut you off anyway.”
Indeed, bikers can be their own worst enemies. Of the 411 California motorcyclist deaths in 2005, 71% were the biker’s fault, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety. Also, 58% of injuries were caused by the motorcyclists. (The state’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System tallied 469 motorcycle fatalities in 2005; the CHP reported 404.)
“It’s easy to go down on a bike,” said the CHP’s Garrett. “While lane-splitting, you’re a very small target inside those car mirrors.”
For motorcyclist Lyle Ausk, an assets protection manager for Target, it’s the legions of preoccupied and irritated drivers who are the most constant threat to lane-splitting bikers. Several months ago, Ausk said, he was riding to Corona when a driver saw him splitting a lane and intentionally swerved toward him.
“I’m sure they know it’s dangerous, but in their minds, I’m breaking the law,” said Ausk, 33, who splits lanes on his Honda Superhawk sport bike to save gas and avoid traffic.
But sometimes, the road rage comes from lane-splitting bikers. Shear’Ree said he once saw a Porsche cut off a motorcyclist on Pacific Coast Highway. The biker then pulled alongside the car, punched through a rearview mirror and sped off, Shear’Ree said.
Ausk said he often has to deal with distracted, unpredictable drivers when he lane-splits. Children have twice flung car doors open in Shear’Ree’s path. Russell has had car passengers accidentally dump drinks onto him, while an acquaintance had a burning cigarette unintentionally flicked into his lap on the freeway.
For safety reasons, Ausk adheres to a few common guidelines: He only rides 10 mph faster than traffic and never over the speed limit. He stays in the two fastest lanes and always acknowledges the motorist who shifts over for him.
Motorcyclists also are allowed to use carpool lanes. And Shear’Ree, who heads the nearly 800-member SoCal Sportbike Riders club, is circulating a petition for a designated motorcycle lane on freeways.
For Los Angeles resident Michael Leikam, the ability to breeze down the road regardless of traffic makes commuting bearable. Leikam rides his BMW R1100RT sport touring bike to work every day.
“Once you get good at sharing lanes, you start seeing a lot of open space between the lanes,” said Leikam, 36. “Those who don’t ride tend to see the freeways as packed.... You get into a groove where you’re constantly looking, assessing, acting. It becomes a Zen thing.”
The Times recently compared the drive time of a lane-splitting motorcyclist and a car driven by a reporter at traffic speed as they traveled from Signal Hill near Long Beach to the Los Angeles Times building downtown. They both traveled north on the 405 Freeway to the 110 Freeway. After leaving Signal Hill at 3:50 p.m., the lane-splitting motorcyclist arrived downtown at 4:14 p.m. after a 24-minute ride. The reporter arrived at 4:37 p.m., after a 47-minute drive.