Lane-Splitting and You. (Yes, Even You.)

Ah, the law. It’s what makes us get up in the morning. Even if you think a particular law doesn’t apply to you — perhaps you never did have any plans to drive 2,000 or more sheep down Hollywood Boulevard (an actual law prohibits this, by the way) — it’s nonetheless important that you understand its context, particularly when said law pertains to the rules of the road.

If you’ve ever driven on the freeway at rush hour, you’ve no doubt encountered something called lane-splitting. That’s when a someone on a bike or motorcycle rides between two lanes of traffic flowing in the same direction. Wherever your opinion lies on the matter, it’s fair to say that lane-splitting is a pretty controversial subject. Drivers insist that it makes the freeways less safe, while bikers maintain that the freedom to pass through congestion minimizes their chances of being rear-ended — in traffic, they might as well be sitting ducks. Though you might find it hard to believe your friendly neighborhood motorcyclist when he or she says that, lane-splitting safety data actually bears this claim out.

Whether you’re ride a unicycle, an 18-wheeler, or drive on any number of tires in between, here are some important things you should know about lane-splitting.

1. Lane-Splitting Is 100% Legal (But Only In California)

Both drivers and motorcyclists should take heed here. Because lane-splitting is illegal elsewhere, there’s a misconception that it’s illegal here too. In fact, it’s a practice that has never been prohibited by California law — nor had any law establishing its legality been passed either. Instead, it was in a grey area — acceptable in practice by virtue of not being legislated against.

Though the laws may be fresh on the books, you might also be surprised to learn that lane-splitting has been the way of the road for decades, and has always been an acceptable practice.

Reporters for KQED sat down with Sgt. Larry Starkey of CHP last year. “As the traffic got slower and slower throughout the decades,

[motorcyclists] began the practice of lane-splitting or lane sharing by moving in between the stopped rows of traffic on the highways,” said Starkey, who heads up the Motorcyclist Safety Program for the CHP, “which prevented their vehicles from overheating, and also helped reduce congestion and ultimately let them get to their destination a little bit quicker as well.”

This knowledge was what led the California Highway Patrol issue a set of guidelines in 2013, only to be forced to remove them one year later by the state’s Office of Administrative Law.

At issue: the guidelines could be construed as enforceable laws. Since the CHP can’t establish its own law, it was up to the state to first recognize lane-splitting in a legislative context, thus giving the CHP the official authority to release their recommendations.

Bonus Tip:  Always wear a helmet.

2. The CHP Has (Finally) Issued Lane-Splitting Safety Guidelines

Enforceable rules surrounding lane-splitting still don’t exist — the only law pertaining to the act is the one explicitly legalizing it — but official guidelines for motorcyclists were at long last released this past September.

Prefacing the tips was in important disclaimer:  “Lane-splitting can be dangerous and extreme caution should be exercised. It should not be performed by inexperienced riders.”

The CHP’s “lane-splitting safety tips for motorcyclists” are as follows:

  • Consider the total environment when you are lane-splitting (this includes the width of lanes, the size of surrounding vehicles, as well as current roadway, weather, and lighting conditions)
  • Danger increases at greater speed differentials.
  • It is typically safer to split between the far left lanes than between the other lanes of traffic.
  • Try to avoid lane-splitting next to large vehicles (big rigs, buses, motorhomes, etc.).
  • Riding on the shoulder is illegal; it is not considered lane-splitting.
  • Be visible – Avoid remaining in the blind spots of other vehicles or lingering between vehicles.
  • Help drivers see you by wearing brightly colored/reflective protective gear and using high beams during daylight hours.

The legality of lane-splitting doesn’t give motorcyclists carte blanche to swerve in and out of traffic at high speeds. Though a 2015 study on lane-splitting concluded that it can be a “relatively safe motorcycle riding strategy if done in traffic moving at 50 mph or less and if motorcyclists do not exceed the speed of other vehicles by more than 15 mph,” motorcyclists must understand that they will be ticketed if their caught riding irresponsibly.

3. Despite Its Legality, Drivers Aren’t Happy

The biggest complaint by drivers is how startling it can be to suddenly have a motorcyclist inches away from their vehicle. Because lane-splitting often means encroaching on a lane already occupied by a car, it can be nerve-racking for anyone in the driver’s seat.

People complain of their cars being scratched, their mirrors knocked off, or being cut off by a biker coming seemingly out of nowhere. While their safety concerns are valid, drivers who themselves practice safe driving — signaling prior to changing lanes, not hugging the lines on either side, and checking blind spots frequently — are less likely to have issues. Another tip:  turn down the music. Even if you can’t see a motorcyclist coming, you’re very likely to hear them.

Lane-splitting has led to road rage, and car owners must understand that it’s against the law to block a motorcyclist with their door, swerve in front of a bike, or driving too closely. That’s how people get injured. The CHP will not hesitate to enforce laws affecting traffic safety.

Violence is never the answer. Understanding and courtesy are just as important as road awareness. Remember to share the road, and give motorcyclists room.

We’re all just trying to get somewhere, too.

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Check Out These References for Further Reading:

“Press Release:  CHP Announces Lane Splitting Tips.” California Highway Patrol. Retrieved 16 January 2019.

“Lane Splitting in California.” Retrieved 16 January 2019.

“Motorcyclists revved up about removal of lane-splitting guidelines.” Hearst Communications. Retrieved 16 January 2019.

“10 Things to Know About Lane Splitting in California (No. 1? Yes, It’s Legal).” KQED. Retrieved 16 January 2019.

“Do lane splitting motorcyclists make California roads safer?” Hearst Communications. Retrieved 16 January 2019.

“Motorcycle Lane-splitting and Safety in California.” Retrieved 16 January 2019.

“California Highway Patrol releases lane-splitting tips.” American Motorcyclist Association. Retrieved 16 January 2019.

“Let motorcycles drive between lanes, and give them room, California Highway Patrol says.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 16 January 2019.