Motorcycle Lane-Splitting Laws Crawl Along

Motorcycling with the government.

Lane-splitting laws for motorcycles.
Lane-splitting laws for motorcycles.Zack Courts

In recent years, efforts to formally legalize lane-splitting in California have been unsuccessful—so we continue to be urged by California Highway Patrol “guidelines” to share lanes at no faster than 30 mph with no more than a 10-mph closure rate to cars. It’s worked, but if you live here you know it’s a widely ignored set of rules.

An effort in 2013 introduced confusion because it specified certain types of roads where lane-splitting would be allowed but did not elaborate on the terms of the act itself—except to say that certain conditions must be met for lane-sharing to be legal: “(1) The passing occurs during traffic congestion; (2) The passing occurs at a safe speed.” Less useful than the CHP’s guidelines.

Eventually the sponsor of this bill elected to let it die, and in its place rose California AB 51. In part, it says, “This bill would authorize a motorcycle to be driven between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane if the speed of traffic is 35 miles per hour or less and the motorcycle is driven no more than 10 miles per hour faster than the speed of traffic. The bill would provide that these provisions do not authorize a motorcycle to be driven in contravention of other laws relating to the safe operation of a vehicle.” An amendment reduced the traffic speed to 30 mph in February 2015 and then in May raised the closing rate to 15 mph and the free-traffic maximum to 50 mph.

Around this same time came the study, “Motorcycle Lane-splitting and Safety in California,” conducted by the Safe Transportation Research & Education Center at the University of California, Berkeley. According to the report, “Lane-splitting motorcyclists were… injured much less frequently during their collisions. Lane-splitting riders were less likely to suffer head injury (9% vs 17%), torso injury (19% vs 29%), extremity injury (60% vs 66%), and fatal injury (1.2% vs 3.0%). Lane-splitting motorcyclists were equally likely to suffer neck injury, compared with non-lane-splitting motorcyclists.” But here’s an interesting wrinkle, “Compared with other motorcyclists, lane-splitting motorcyclists were more often riding on weekdays and during commute hours, were using better helmets, and were traveling at lower speeds. Lane-splitting riders were also less likely to have been using alcohol and less likely to have been carrying a passenger.” They’re more apt to be professional commuters and less fun seekers and likely to be the reason for the suggested raised speed limits in the later draft.

“If we make the best of our new guidelines I think we’ll get there. But we have to be good citizens first.”

For the moment, AB 51 has been denuded and passed through California’s Senate Transportation Committee. Where it once had specific speed guidelines, now the bill says this: “(a) For purposes of this section, ‘lane splitting’ means driving a motorcycle, as defined in Section 400, that has two wheels in contact with the ground between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane, including both divided and undivided streets, roads, or highways. (b) The California Department of Highway Patrol may develop educational guidelines relating to lane splitting in a manner that would ensure the safety of the motorcyclist and the drivers and passengers of the surrounding vehicles. (c) In developing the guidelines pursuant to this section, the department shall consult with agencies and organizations with an interest in road safety and motorcycle behavior, including, but not limited to, all of the following: (1) The Department of Motor Vehicles; (2) The Department of Transportation; (3) The Office of Traffic Safety; (4) A motorcycle organization focused on motorcyclist safety.”

The fact that the guidelines are now shared among those who would promote motorcycle safety and those who have to enforce the rules is good, though I predict a slow ride through the legal system before we’re done.

The end game should be obvious: legal lane-splitting across the US. It’s time. Despite the fair percentage of abusers in California—I see them every day—it’s proven to be relatively safe and efficient. If we make the best of our new guidelines and a broad-based effort comes forward to promote the benefits of lane-splitting in other states, I think we’ll get there. But we have to be good citizens first.

Related:

CHP-Commisioned Study On Lane-Splitting Safety
Report finds that "filtering" is no more dangerous than riding in marked lanes.