The first question my well-meaning acquaintances ask is, “Do you take that thing on the freeway?”
Since that thing is a 1.2-liter engine on two wheels and a 600-pound body, that’s actually a rather silly question.
But I know it’s only a warm-up for what’s really on their minds:
“Are you one of those who cut in between cars?”
Yes, I am.
And I’m aware — even without the disapproving tone of the question — of the emotions I raise when you see me in the rear view mirror, or worse, become aware of my presence as I cross the plane of your windshield: momentary panic, then relief, and last, outrage.
Also, let’s not forget jealousy. Once I pass, I know you continue watching me move inexorably out of sight while you wait for the car in front of you to move another few feet.
So why do I do it when I know it scares and angers you?
I won’t argue, as many of my motorcycle comrades do, that the practice we call lane splitting is for our safety. Helmets and headlights are for safety. Lane splitting is for beating traffic.
I base my defense on social and philosophical arguments which I’ll get to shortly.
First I’d like to reassure you that, no matter how much you may fear it, you will not swerve your car sideways and hit me. By the time I invade your space, I’ve been studying your driving from four cars back. I know if you’re on your cellphone or putting on your makeup. I know if you’re following too close or lagging behind. I know if you hug to the left or right, or weave.
If you’re the worst kind of driver, the one who trudges along at your own slow pace locked mirror-to-mirror with the car beside you, I’ve been cursing you for as long as it takes you to wake from your reverie and hit the gas, giving me the few feet of separation I need to tip my handlebars around your side view mirror.
It takes me about a half second to make my move. Once I do, you can’t react fast enough to hit me.
You might argue that I’m an outlaw at heart. In fact, unlike the rest of the 50 states, California does not prohibit lane splitting, making our state more aligned with most of the Third World — don’t groan — and also the premier cities of Europe.
On its website, the California Highway Patrol states that lane splitting is not illegal but must be practiced safely — use the space between the one and two lanes, keep speed below 30 mph, and so forth.
Every motorcyclist, the CHP adds, has “ultimate responsibility” for his or her own safety. That’s a precept I can embrace wholeheartedly: As long as I’m riding between you I’m totally in command of my own destiny. In contrast, following in line behind you leaves me at the mercy of the unknown motorist behind me.
And between lanes, I see the L.A. freeways as no car-bound motorist can. I see space everywhere.
There are actually two independent freeway systems occupying the same roadway. One is filled by cars and the other is entirely empty. No matter how dense the traffic, morning or night, most of the freeway remains free for the taking to those whose vehicles are small enough to ply the creases between cars.
Am I wrong to take that space?
I would argue that I am serving all commuters — and consequently all society — by using the pavement that automobiles can’t. I’m subtracting one 4,000-pound box from the endless line of boxes keeping each other from getting where they are going.
The small price in psychic discomfort less fortunate four-wheeled commuters pay for my service could easily be palliated by a road trip to say, Paris, where the culture of the super freeway has evolved to afford the motorcycle an exalted place.
On Boulevard Périphérique, the perpetually gridlocked 22-mile loop that circumnavigates the city, motorcycles own the space between the number one and number two lanes. If my sudden appearance in your mirror rattles you, you have no idea how panicked you’d feel on seeing a phalanx of 20 or 30 Ducatis, BMWs, Yamahas and Hondas charging from the rear at twice your speed. So many commuters ride rather than drive that they create their own traffic pattern, bunching up in formations that whoosh by slower moving cars every 30 seconds or so.
Etiquette known only to the French requires motorists in the number one lane to stay left — keeping their mirrors inches from the concrete divider — and those in the number two lane to stay right. Ignorant Americans, who by habit aim for the center of the lane, soon learn of their impropriety from a barrage of gestures that can be understood in any language.
I know it’s unmanly, at best, to hold up the French as a model for how Americans should act. But I’ll stick my neck out and say Los Angeles would be a better city if a thousand, or ten thousand, commuters gave up their cars for motorcycles.
Given my belief that we are a city of uncommonly polite drivers, I’ll part with this advice:
When you see me drawing near, don’t jerk your steering wheel to get out of my way. You’ll only scare everyone around you unnecessarily.
If you want to show solidarity, just hold your course and be sure you’re a little in front or a little behind the car beside you.
I’ll be gone before you know it.