Motorcyclists on California roads have been lane-splitting for decades, but all this time, the state government has never taken an explicit stand for or against the practice…
…until last year, when Sacramento finally decided to address the issue head-on.
Assembly Bill 51, which came into effect earlier this year, formally legalized lane-splitting in California. However, there is still no consistent set of standards for the practice, and many questions remain.
What Is Lane-Splitting?
Lane-splitting is the practice by which motorcyclists ride in between two lanes of traffic, often at a higher rate of speed than the cars around them. It is one of the only situations in which vehicles on the road are not expected to travel in the center of the lane.
Lane-splitting is legal and widely accepted in many countries, including throughout much of Europe and Asia (where there are often more small vehicles such as motorcycles and scooters on the road than there are in America). In these countries, lane-splitting is seen as a perfectly normal way of getting through traffic for smaller vehicles.
In fact, motorcycles and other small vehicles are often expected to lane-split, especially in large cities and heavy traffic areas. If a motorcycle has the opportunity to lane-split but doesn’t take it, other drivers might get mad!
In the United States, however, drivers of large vehicles tend to be much more wary of lane-splitters. Consequently, the practice is illegal in every state… except for California.
Is Lane-Splitting Dangerous?
To the non-motorcyclist, lane-splitting may seem like an unnecessarily dangerous practice. Traveling in between lanes, faster than any of the traffic around you… this sounds like a recipe for disaster.
The fear of lane-splitting stems from, and perhaps feeds into, public perception of bikers as “daredevils.” But this perception is not always grounded in reality. Most motorcyclists are in fact very concerned with their safety while riding, which is why many want to see lane-splitting legalized.
Although it may seem counter intuitive, many motorcyclists and motorcyclist groups argue that lane-splitting is actually safer than the alternative. The American Motorcyclist Association, for instance, has expressed support for the practice, and their support is primarily rooted in safety concerns.Speak to a Motorcycle Accident Attorney
How could lane-splitting possibly be safer than driving in ordinary traffic? Well, consider this: one of the most dangerous situations for a motorcyclist involves being caught on a congested highway, and being unable to move between lanes.
Congested traffic is so dangerous for motorcyclists because of the risk of a rear-end accident. Remember, rear-ends are the most common type of car accident, and these accidents frequently occur during rush hour, when the cars are bumper-to-bumper and there is little room for driver error.
For most types of four-wheeled vehicles, rear-end accidents at low speeds are not particularly dangerous. Unless the car in back was moving at a very high rate of speed, the risk of death or serious injury to the driver of a passenger car is relatively small.
But for motorcyclists the risks are much, much higher. If a motorcyclist is “tapped” from behind, even by a slow-moving car, the rider could be knocked off the motorcycle onto the freeway, and perhaps even thrown into oncoming traffic.
The same goes for rear-end accidents where the motorcyclist collides with the car in front of them. An accident which might be a mere nuisance to the driver of a passenger car could be deadly to a motorcyclist.
This is where lane-splitting can prove useful. By allowing motorcyclists to zoom between lanes of traffic during rush hour, lane-splitting decreases the risk that a motorcyclist will be involved in a rear-end accident.
Of course, lane-splitting comes with its own set of risks, such as the risk of being hit by a car that is in the process of changing lanes. But if it can prevent devastating rear-end collisions in heavy traffic, lane-splitting may be a clear net benefit for motorcyclist safety.
This, at least, is the position of the American Motorcycle Association. And while many drivers of four-wheeled vehicles might find this hard to accept at face value, the Association does provide some evidence to back up its position:
According to a landmark 1981 study known as the “Hurt Report,” commissioned by the federal Department of Transportation and authored by Professor Harry Hurt of the University of Southern California, nearly 60% of motorcycle accidents occur in moderate to heavy traffic, which is the type of traffic in which motorcyclists would be most likely to lane-split.
At least one major study, authored by researchers at the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at UC Berkeley, found that motorcyclists who split lanes “were much less often injured in their collisions” than motorcyclists who did not. Just as importantly, the study also found that lane-splitting motorcyclists were “considerably less likely to suffer head injury, torso injury, extremity injury, and fatal injury than riders who were not lane-splitting.”
Nor is safety the only potential benefit of lane-splitting. Supporters of the practice also argue that it may help to reduce traffic congestion, and even cut carbon emissions by decreasing the amount of time that motorcyclists spend in traffic.
As you might imagine, this sort of research – combined with the convenience provided by lane-splitting – means that many motorcyclists have long supported legalizing the practice. However, some drivers continue to have reservations about sharing the road with lane-splitting motorcyclists.
What Is the Legal Status of Lane-Splitting in California?
For years, lane-splitting existed in a sort of legal limbo in the state of California. Although it was explicitly prohibited by law in every other state, lane-splitting was technically legal in California, simply because there was no law banning it.
Motorcyclists can – and have – lane-split on California roads for decades.
Typically, the California Highway Patrol would turn a blind eye to the practice, so long as the motorcyclists were lane-splitting safely, although of course they sometimes would ticket motorcyclists who lane-split recklessly.
Over the years, CHP drew up guidelines for safe lane-splitting. However, this led to questions of whether a law enforcement agency could write policy in such a way, and criticism grew on both sides over the state’s refusal to take a stand on the issue..
This all changed with AB 51, which was introduced into the state legislature in 2016 by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, and signed into law shortly afterward by Governor Brown. As of January 1, 2017, lane-splitting is officially legal in California.
AB 51 solved the abovementioned quandary by legalizing lane-splitting in California, and formalizing CHP’s authority over the matter. However, the bill does not provide precise guidelines on what constitutes lawful lane-splitting.
In its original form, the bill limited motorcyclists who were lane-splitting to no more than 50 miles per hour at their fastest speed, and no more than 15 miles per hour faster than the traffic around them.
But these guidelines were removed from the final version of the bill, which instead directed CHP, in accordance with motorcycle safety groups and other relevant government agencies, to write up a set of rules governing lane-splitting.
The precise language of AB 51 can be found in Section 21658.1 of the California Vehicle Code.
What Are the Guidelines for Lane-Splitting, and How Do I Lane-Split Safely?
The California Highway Patrol is still in the process of drawing up this new set of rules for lane-splitting. Although it may be a while before these rules are released, the CHP had already published, prior to the passage of the law, a set of General Guidelines for motorcyclists to follow when lane-splitting.
While these guidelines are no longer officially in effect, they may still provide some important clues on how motorcyclists can lane-split safely. The guidelines, broadly summarized, are as follows:
Don’t travel too fast. Lane-splitting is meant to save time, so it’s expected that motorcyclists will travel faster than the traffic around them. But if you go too fast, then this could put you at risk from being hit by a car changing lanes up ahead.
The CHP recommends that motorists avoid lane-splitting at speeds more than 10 miles per hour faster than the other cars around them, and to avoid lane-splitting entirely when traffic is traveling faster than 30 miles per hour.
This would mean that the fastest speed at which you should ever lane split, even under the most favorable circumstances, is about 40 miles per hour.
Only lane-split in certain areas. Some roads are better for lane-splitting than others. If the lanes are so narrow that there is not room to move between the cars, then you should avoid lane-splitting.
You should also avoid lane-splitting on sharp curves, and try to lane-split between the Number 1 and Number 2 lanes on the far left side of the freeway, because other drivers are more likely to expect lane-splitting motorcyclists in this area.
Finally, avoid lane-splitting near freeway entrances and exits, and if possible, stick to roads you are familiar with, so that you do not encounter any nasty surprises.
Be mindful of other drivers around you. Look at the road ahead of you, and be prepared for a vehicle to change lanes in front of you.
You should regularly scan the road, and be aware that other drivers may be driving recklessly. Try to stay out of vehicles’ blind spots, and do not ride near wide trucks, buses, or other large vehicles which may not leave enough room for you to lane-split.
Also, if you lane-split at night, make sure that you are visible.
But above all, you should use your common sense. All the normal rules of the road apply to lane-splitting drivers, and so do all the unwritten practices of the road. Motorcyclists who lane-split should follow these, just as they would follow them in any other situation.
The Future of Lane-Splitting
So far, California is the only state to legalize lane-splitting. But it may not be the last. As public support for the practice continues to grow among the motorcyclist community, other states may follow suit. Already, Utah and Texas have considered similar measures.
However, while motorcyclists may welcome the change, it is likely that many other users of the road will continue to harbor concerns about lane-splitting. For instance, after a motorcyclist was killed while lane-splitting on Route 78 in San Marcos recently, one local was quoted as saying, “I really do believe that it should be illegal because it’s just dangerous.”
It is a safe bet that this bystander is not alone, and that many other drivers feel this way. And as more lane-splitting accidents occur (as they inevitably will), such sentiments will continue to surface, and this may hinder the momentum to legalize lane-splitting.
Will lane-splitting soon be a reality for motorcyclists across the United States? Only time will tell, and we look forward to seeing how the law changes in this area. But for now, motorcyclists in California are free to lane-split to their heart’s content… with caution, of course.