The controversial practice of motorcycle lane-splitting is legal in California. Or at least it’s not illegal.
Motorists may hate it, and critics may say it’s unsafe. But the California Highway Patrol recently posted guidelines suggesting they condone the practice. According to them, though, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.
The agency’s guidelines rest on a fundamental rule: a motorcycle is allowed to pass between cars in adjoining lanes of traffic as long as it does so safely.
“Safely” means three things:
1. A motorcyclist should split lanes at no more than 10 mph above traffic speed.
2. A motorcyclist should not split lanes when traffic is moving at more than 30 mph.
3. A motorcyclist should split lanes using the space between the No. 1 and No. 2 lanes.
The guidelines are not laws. A motorcyclist could not be cited for breaking them, but neither could one avoid being cited by following them if he were otherwise riding unsafely -- not paying attention to environmental issues like lighting, weather and so on. An officer could cite a motorcyclist for riding recklessly, whether within the guidelines or not, said Sgt. Mark Pope, statewide coordinator for the CHP’s California Motorcyclist Safety Program.
The guidelines, simple though they may be, took seven years of haggling between agencies and organizations with competing agendas. That meant “everybody, proponent and opponent alike,” Pope said. “There were people that believed [lane-splitting] was unsafe.”
The motorcycle advocates in the discussion drew a hard line: California would remain the only state in the nation to condone lane splitting.
Among the loudest voices was Steve Guderian, a former Ontario city motorcycle cop who is now the safety officer for the motorcycle rights group ABATE. (Formerly the American Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments, ABATE is a political action organization with roots in the Hells Angels’ ultimately unsuccessful battles against the California mandatory-helmet law. Trying to shed its renegade past, ABATE now calls itself the American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education.)
Guderian has a statistics-based argument for lane splitting -- which he prefers to call lane sharing -- giving a subtly different interpretation to what happens when a motorcycle passes a car in the same lane.
Although he acknowledges that there has been no definitive research on lane-splitting accident rates, Guderian bases his case in part on the work of James V. Ouellet, a motorcycle-accident analyst who concluded in a 2011 research paper that in congested freeway traffic, motorcyclists were less likely to have accidents while splitting lanes, by more than 2 to 1, than those who were not.
My own experience provides a couple of reasons why this would be true. Vision — probably the motorcyclist’s most important edge — is dramatically better while lane-splitting between cars. And there’s less danger of being rear-ended because there’s no car directly behind.
A survey conducted by the consulting firm of Ewald & Wasserman found that 78% of motorcyclists split lanes and nearly two-thirds of them reported having a car try to block them. More than half of motorists said they thought lane splitting was illegal, and 7% admitted to using their vehicle in some way to impede a motorcycle.
That told Pope that drivers needed the guidelines even more than motorcyclists.
“It became apparent there was a need to educate the people driving cars,” he said.
He also suggested that motorcyclists may be responsible for their own bad rap.
“We have a way in our community of being our own worst enemy,” Pope said. “It’s the guy with the loud pipes or the guy who blows through traffic scaring the lady who is driving to church. That’s what the people in the cars remember.”