Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lane Splitting: Getting to the bottom of a hot topic

Lane Splitting: Getting to the bottom of a hot topic

I've heard all of the arguments for and against motorcyclists splitting lanes. My own opinion is irrelevant as each rider must make up his or her own mind. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't – depending on the situation (weather, time of day, traffic, etc.). I've decided to address the issue via this forum for my friends and family members who seem to disagree most about this seemingly minor matter.

The Facts: In California lane splitting is absolutely legal, with conditions. That's it in a nutshell. The California Driver's Handbook, Sharing the Road with Other Vehicles, states, "It is not illegal to share lanes with motorcycles."

For example, here it is in black and white from the "Ask an Officer" FAQ thread on the CHP site: (

Q: Can motorcycle riders "split" lanes and ride between other vehicles?
A: Lane splitting by motorcycles is permissible but must be done in a safe and prudent manner.

That's pretty clear. But, you may ask, just what is a "safe and prudent manner?" And therein lies the rub, as the definition of “safe and prudent” is very much up to interpretation by police officers and judges.

Lane splitting refers to a two-wheeled vehicle moving between lanes of vehicles that are proceeding in the same direction. More narrowly, it refers to passing stopped or slower moving traffic between lanes at a speed greater than surrounding traffic. It is also sometimes called lane sharing, whitelining, filtering or stripe-riding. Alternatively, lane splitting has been used to describe moving through traffic that is in motion while filtering is used to describe moving through traffic that is stopped.

Lane splitting by motorcycles is generally legal in Europe, Japan and several other countries, and is illegal in many U.S. states, but is considered lawful in California.

The legal restrictions on lane splitting for bicyclists can be the same, such as in California. In some jurisdictions, such as Nebraska, lane-splitting by motorcyclists is specifically prohibited.

That last part came from a comprehensive Wikipedia article that you may enjoy (

First, some history about lane splitting by motorcycles.

I was told by a CHP officer that the decision to allow the practice of motorcycle riders sharing the lanes with or riding between two vehicles came about after the large, air-cooled Harley-Davidson bikes would overheat in heavy, slow or stopped traffic. Sounds like a legitimate concern to me. Anyhow, that ruling (or actually, not technically disallowing it) evolved into what we have now: ANY bike can split lanes when safe to do so. And that brings us back to "safe and prudent."

All of us have likely witnessed sport bikes weaving in and out of traffic at 75+ MPH. Those riders shouldn't be surprised when they are stopped and ticketed.

Some quick Net research I did revealed that in California it's legal to "split" lanes on a motorcycle, which means you can ride in the lane between the lanes when traffic is slowed to a "virtual halt" and even then it is legal only if done safely. And "safely" is always very much a judgment call. The mere fact that an accident happened while a rider was lane splitting is very strong evidence that on that occasion it wasn't safe to do so. If an accident happens while a motorcycle is lane splitting, there’s a good chance that fault for the accident will be attributed to the motorcycle rider. If the insurance adjuster or court finds that the motorcyclist’s carelessness was a substantial cause of the accident, the rider is out of luck when it comes to recovering damages.

Other states, when considering lane splitting laws, often reference California's success, or lack thereof. In a 3/1/05 Tacoma, Washington News Tribune article (Bill could give bikers free pass through traffic), the following quote says it all: "But the Washington State Patrol is opposed to the bill, according to patrol spokesman Capt. Jeff DeVere. He told the committee that it would be difficult to set and enforce standards for appropriate speeds and conditions for lane splitting. And he said that officials with the California Highway Patrol told him that they wished they had never begun allowing the practice." Hmmmm, very interesting.

Even Arizona put together a bill to legalize lane-splitting in stopped traffic. The bill, introduced by fellow Harley rider Representative Jerry Weiers, went into effect for a one-year probationary period on January 1, 2011. The bill only applied to counties with populations of over 2 million, which is mainly just Maricopa County.

So why are more states not following the lead? It seems that the majority of the car driving population does not like the idea of lane splitting, citing reasons from "it's too dangerous" to "if I'm stuck in traffic, you should be too." Lane splitting can be dangerous; however being at the back of traffic on a motorcycle can also be dangerous. Rear end collisions are very common and deadly for motorcyclists. Then again, just riding a motorcycle is dangerous.

Anyhow, like most riding decisions that we as motorcyclists make, legal or not, it's really up to the individual rider to determine what's safe and how much he or she will "push it." That goes for speeding, lane splitting, riding in groups or riding above ones skill level.

Here are a couple of resources for those who choose to split lanes:

Tips for Splitting Lanes (

That site "Splitting Lanes 101" includes a short video pointing out the dangers of splitting lanes. Man, that dude has some loud pipes!

And here's some new info from a recent study (and an article titled, "Proof That Motorists are Out to Kill Motorcyclists"). Some scary statistics!

According to a survey conducted by the California Office of Traffic Safety, the majority of car drivers are unaware that lane splitting is a legal practice. A small minority, seven percent, admitted to researchers that they'd actively tried to prevent lane splitting. Despite that, the vast majority, 84.4 percent of riders, have never had an incident while splitting. A lot of what's in this report is statistical confirmation of common sense and what you and I observe every day:

- The vast majority of riders are male (93.4 percent) and middle aged (30.4 percent are 45-54).
- Most riders use motorcycles only for leisure (45.9 percent), but plenty use them for both commuting and leisure riding (30.8 percent).
- More riders lane split on freeways (77.6 percent) than on surface streets (63.9 percent)
- You're more likely to be hit by a car while lane splitting on the freeway (11.7 percent) than on surface streets (8.3 percent
- Only 1.7 percent of riders admit to splitting while traffic is traveling at 70mph or faster.
- 10mph above the speed of traffic is the most popular splitting pace (42.1 percent).
- Distracted drivers (30.0 percent) and drivers not bothering to check mirrors before changing lanes (32.5 percent) are seen as the biggest dangers.
- You're more likely to lane split the more often you ride.

Whatever you decide, with regard to splitting lanes, be safe out there.

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