I moved to California three years ago, and in that time I’ve become convinced that lane splitting (also called lane sharing or filtering) should be legalized in all 50 states.
Howls of indignation, I know. And yes, I understand it’s a big ask and will require years of public awareness campaigns, police support and driver (re)education. All I ask is that you hear me out.
If I start with the “Pros”, the naysayers will only sputter, “But–! But–!” and won’t hear a thing. So let’s begin with the arguments against legalized lane splitting, and why they are not–and sometimes are–valid. See, I’m reasonable.
Possibly the least-informed, most knee-jerk reaction to an invitation to consider legal lane splitting. Also the most ridiculous at least partially because motorcycling is in itself inherently dangerous.
We’re already putting it all out there, sharing concrete with texting, eating, talking, make-up-applying, Google-mapping, reaching into the backseat to separate your bickering kids drivers, all of whom are piloting–with varying degrees of skill–4,000-pound metal death missiles.
Just today I read that in the last three days, five drivers have hit kids at their school bus stops. Y’all are the ones who are dangerous.
Anyway, yes, we accept a certain risk when we ride, but that leads me to a few points. First, it tends to make us more observant of our surroundings and other drivers. We pick up on subtle stuff many drivers just don’t see, like the pickup repeatedly drifting toward the dotted line to its right…no surprise when the driver “suddenly” swerves into the right lane (putting his blinker on halfway through).
Second, for some riders the danger is a part of the draw of motorcycling. They’re the ones who are most likely to piss you off by lane splitting past you way too fast…and unfortunately they’re the ones you’ll remember. Not the vast majority of us who are respectful and responsible.
Third, studies have shown that lane splitting is actually less dangerous–when done reasonably. A well-known (and oft-cited) 2015 study by the University of California-Berkeley and the California Highway Patrol found that riders involved in incidents while lane splitting are less likely to suffer serious injuries than those who were involved in non-lane splitting incidents.
Click here to read the study and its results (ots.ca.gov).
Because lane splitting incidents examined in the study tended to take place during peak traffic times, it’s fair to speculate that most of those riders are also commuters who use their bike to get to and from work. Which leads us to a “pro” in favor of lane splitting, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Rear-end collisions are the biggest threat to a motorcyclist in stop-and-go traffic; when we get rear-ended, it’s not just an inconvenience and maybe a minor case of whiplash. It can be devastating. By moving out of the line of vehicles and into a clear path where we can see what’s ahead and react, we’re out of harm’s way from behind and able to take control of our own fate.
It should be noted that speed plays a large part in lane splitting safety. The UC-Berkeley study determined that there was no increase in the severity of injuries if traffic was moving 50 mph or less, and the speed differential between the rider and traffic was 15 mph or less.
But a rider flying at 60 mph between cars moving at 20 mph? A recipe for disaster and, as far as I’m concerned, worthy of a citation.
“But What If I Don’t See a Lane-Splitting Rider When I’m Changing Lanes?”
That sounds like it’s your problem, not the rider’s. Let’s imagine a scenario: you’re in slow-and-go traffic inching along at 5 to 25 mph. Your exit is coming up so you need to get to the right. Traffic isn’t moving at a constant speed, it’s fluctuating and doing that “accordion” thing.
You check your right mirror and then, just to be safe, do a head check because there might be a car (or motorcycle!) in your blind spot. Your signal is on so other drivers know your intention. It looks clear, so you go for it.
Good news! In that scenario, you would’ve seen the motorcyclist approaching in plenty of time. Plus they would’ve seen your signal and, because they don’t want to get hit, they likely slowed down to let you get over.
Wasn’t that easy?
“Well…It Still Seems Dangerous”
So were horseless carriages, but eventually we got used to those too.
“It’s Not Fair, They’re Jumping the Queue”
Do you get upset when you’re in line at the grocery with a full cart, and a person walks up with two items and gets to go to the express checkout lane?
Or, another perspective: when you only have two items, aren’t you glad you get to go to the express lane and not stand in line behind five people with full carts?
Think of it this way: the motorcycle that just filtered past you is one less car in line, one less idling exhaust pipe. And you’ll likely never see them again. What does that really mean to you, other than a positive reduction in traffic congestion?
Hey, maybe you should think about commuting on a motorcycle too!
Which segues beautifully (it’s almost like I planned this!) into why lane splitting is so great.
It Relieves Congestion for EVERYONE
A 2012 study in Belgium (click here to read it) analyzed traffic data on one particular stretch of road during a morning rush hour, crunched some numbers and determined that if 10 percent of vehicle drivers switched to motorcycles and were allowed to split lanes, overall delays would drop by 40 percent.
Not only that, but if 25 percent switched to motorcycles, congestion would largely disappear!
I like to tell car drivers, “You aren’t stuck in traffic, you ARE traffic.”
It’s Better For the Environment
The same Belgian study also found that CO2 emissions would drop by 6 percent, due largely to the reduction in idle time.
It’s Still Optional
Remember, even though it would be legal, no one is forcing any rider to lane split. In fact, the CHP recommends that only experienced riders attempt it, and I would agree. If you’re comfortable doing it, do it. If not, you don’t have to.
There have been plenty of times when I’m threading my way between lanes on the freeway and I see another rider approaching from behind, going just a bit faster than I’m comfortable with. So I slide over in between two cars at the earliest safe opportunity to let them by, then get back into my “express lane.” No biggie.
It’s Faster and More Efficient
This one is a no-brainer. It gets riders where they need to go in potentially less time.
Extrapolate this out and you realize that by giving those who choose to commute on two wheels an incentive to do so, we might just increase the number of riders on the road. Which might be part of why both the Motorcycle Industry Council and the American Motorcyclists Association both support legalized lane splitting.
Did We Mention It’s Safer?
But only when done responsibly, and it helps when drivers are aware of the practice and know it’s legal. For example, the UC-Berkeley study was done after years of California motorists becoming accustomed to splitting.
There will be a learning curve, and it might be painful. Drivers as well as motorcyclists will need to be educated, and it will take years before we start to see normalized behavior and data.
That said, it will happen. Despite the horror stories and viral videos you see on Facebook, most drivers I pass every day are considerate to me–possibly because I’m not riding like a jerk. It helps that the CHP continues to release guidelines that now include formal language instructing drivers to keep to the left of the fast lane to allow riders safe passage, and that intentionally blocking or not moving over for a rider is illegal.
Modern car technology is actually helping our cause, with lane departure warnings and blind spot detectors. I’m always amused to watch the double line of orange lights appear on mirrors as I filter through traffic.
Autonomous cars will hopefully be looking out for us as well, with Ford having applied for a patent that is specifically designed to detect a lane-splitting motorcyclist. Way to have our backs, Ford!
The biggest downside to lane splitting right now is that it’s not consistent across the country, and for it to be truly safe that needs to change. Every state needs to legalize and train drivers for it. It’s just the smart thing to do.
So what about the reverse. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” as they say. Anyone ever have an idiot car driver come from behind and pass you on your motorcycle IN YOUR LANE!? I have. Once on a two lane highway and once on the interstate! And I lived to tell about it. It is blatantly illegal in my home state of Pennsylvania (I know as I’m a retired police officer). But just as the cagers cried “me too” and got included with our new “ride on red” law (even though their cars always tripped the magnetic sensor) as sure as I’m sitting here they are going to cry “me too” with lane splitting and are going to be coming from behind and forcing their way past motorcycles. Mark my words. And don’t tell me to center my bike in the lane to prevent it. We all know that somewhere some stupid cager is going to do it anyway. Never underestimate the stupidity of some humans. We are opening ourselves up for great risk for the sake of going to the front of the line.
I’m originally from South Africa, where lane-splitting is tolerated de-facto, but in a grey legal area. It also means you do it without legal protection – cagers can do what they want with you in limbo. Freeway splitting was great, but also in heavy city traffic we filtered to the front of the lanes up to the traffic lights. (Same as in Europe – ever see the Paris scooter mob)? This seems to piss off cages even more, but there’s almost no risk to us there. Obviously we fly off faster that most of them can. I can’t do this in Idaho, but then I also cannot complain about the traffic, which is non-existent here. I keep on dreaming that lane splitting will be legalized everywhere in the US, but since the traffic densities vary so much from the large cities to the rural states, I’m not very hopeful.
I LOVE THIS!!! I work for a visiting nurse service in NYC and have been using my bike to get to the homes of my patients for over 10 years. I don’t have to tell you that traffic in NYC is crazy and I feel forced to lane split or filter to the front most days to avoid heat exhaustion, aggressive or distracted drivers. I feel SO much safer when I lane split because I feel like I’m constantly getting out of the way. (I’m a Ninja HA HA) We just formed a motorcycle political advocacy group for the Department of Transportation and this issue is near the top of our list. Perhaps we should form a national organization to pursue national legalization of lane splitting. Riders against lane splitting should remember that this activity is for advanced riders and is optional. You do not have to lane split.
I grew up in England. Lane splitting is so common there that it doesn’t even have a name, it’s just normal practice. It’s safe. Don’t be afraid of it. I have ridden many many miles like that and others have ridden many more than me. As far as I know, most of the world allows it, it’s just the 49 US States where it’s not allowed.
I met a guy at the Harley shop in San Diego area who had come across country and through Arizona to San Diego. He said it was over 100 degrees through Phoenix, no lane splitting, traffic at a near stand still on the freeway, sweat running down his face. Nearly passed out from heat and dehydration before he got moving good again. I’ve ridden in Phoenix when I lived there years ago and the heat is brutal and I gave up riding in that kind of heat. Without lane splitting privedges, an area like that is positively deadly for a biker.
For someone who rides a Harley Davidson I could see it as they are not the best bikes for hot weather.
I’m a relatively newer gal rider, and it took a bit of “growing a pair” to embrace lane-splitting, my husband leading me first, and I following by example. Now, I enjoy it on my own, it is a skill to be continuously developed and perfected, as is all my riding.
In California, where we reside, it is ILLEGAL to interfere with a motorcyclist while riding or lane splitting, autos are supposed to draw to the side to allow a bike to pass. And with respect to the drivers caught in traffic, we try as often as possible, to give a wave when drivers draw aside when we approach, or halt their lane transition until we pass. Give them a friendly “thank you” wave for seeing and respecting us, the good feeling can then go both ways and can help reinforce a positive opinion of sharing the lanes. The other side of the respect issue is to not be blazing down the bots dots, give the drivers a chance to see you coming. We can cover a tremendous amount of distance in the short time between rear/side mirror checks, our headlights can get lost in the mass of headlights or sun glare behind a driver.
Quite often bikes will catch up and fall in line to form a snake filtering through traffic. When one rider is leading, they often create a bow wave that opens, allowing a small entourage of bikes to pass through. And on this point we bikes also need to be aware of bike traffic coming up behind us too. Some lane splitters are faster than others, so we need to look also for headlights coming up, and move to the side to let the faster ones pass.
As one of the other riders mentioned above regarding heat, June of 2018 we were stuck in construction traffic in Las Vegas on I-15 while returning on a tour, the temps were 110F, and not only is it deadly for a rider, it can be deadly for our bikes, sitting in full sun going nowhere. So, we bent the rules, we slithered our bikes into every gap conceivable to keep ourselves moving forward, to try to cool ourselves and our bikes. Put another way, if my bikes stalls due to heat or I have a heat issue, now you will have a greater traffic impact trying to get emergency vehicles to me or get me and my bike off the road. A difficult proposition at best with standstill traffic.
Utah, although a good start, is essentially just duck-walking your bike through a parking lot of stopped cars.
So, understand the frustration of drivers (I’m a driver too, I know what it’s like to be stuck in traffic) and try to make their day a bit better by a friendly wave and respect for their situation, and acknowledge that we are just more nimble and give them the chance to see us coming.
You don’t have to lane split, there are bikes that can’t do it easily due to their width, but don’t deny it to those that can split and chose to. Personally, have the option open for me and let it be my decision to make, rather than not having an option and being at greater risk. It’s just careful thought and common sense.
Jenny: Bravo! You did a masterful job of explaining a polarizing topic and pushing for an intelligent solution. You only didn’t mention the risk coming from drivers that consider the double yellow lines segregating the carpool lanes as a mere suggestion rather than a rule of law. But I know you see them daily, as I do.
A very good article from Woman Rider’s Jenny Smith that covers most all the issues and has links to the most note worthy studies from 2015 UC Berkley and 2012 study in Belgium. We need to be progressive and think ahead as motorcyclist, not at what is or was. In Utah they construct their HOV lanes with a double 8″ lines between HOV and general purpose lanes. They require a 32″ space between the 8″ lines thereby making the full width 48″ wide between lanes. (8+32+8=48). Using common sense, Federal minimum lane width is 11′-6″ and inserting a 48″ lane between the HOV and general Purpose makes for 27′-0″ combined width. If cars are roughly 6′-6″ wide, and centering the cars in their lanes will leave roughly 2′-6″ on each side of the car. With this design requirement now in effect in Utah, that leaves 5′-0″ + 4′-0″=9′-0″ potentially for motorcycles to scoot between the cars. When riding down the HOV lane, this possibility is so obvious, it makes you drool with anticipation. This is the type of design and direction motorcyclist should be thinking in the future. Motorcyclist should be aware that some people are fearless and can lane share without a negative thought, while others can’t imagine the act, but we as a group should be trying to remove restriction for those that can do the act safely, as has been shown in these studies, is a safe alternative.
“Third, studies have shown that lane splitting is actually less dangerous–when done reasonably.” When done reasonably? That is part of the problem. I have heard the stories of people who have witnessed it and a lot of these California lane splitter’s do not ride reasonably while doing it. Have you seen You Tube recently?
I have been riding for over 40-years and I hope it doesn’t happen as drivers have to many distractions to make this work.
As others have observed, squids splitting lanes are one of the big downsides of this concept and while they clearly choose to endanger themselves, negative implications for other road users also abound.
The wail of their often loud exhausts does not present the image most rides want and a reminder of the Doppler Effect as they go by is not welcome either.
Finally, as a NV resident, I seldom ride in heavy CA traffic but would posit LEOs are not prone to initiate pursuit during rush hour, so most transgressors do their dirty deeds with little fear of retribution.
Reasons to not accept lane sharing in other jurisdictions? Absolutely not!
The squids we will always have among us 😰.
As a lane-splitter, I will state that being “reasonable” is employing common sense. I have had California Highway Patrol motor officers pass me lane-splitting faster than I would care to go. I choose a speed that is reasonable for my experience and road and traffic conditions. As a rider, I must exercise observation and intelligence at all times around traffic and when riding solo. A panicked rabbit is enough of a concern for me, for a car, it’s a bump under the tires.
Many people would state that riding a motorcycle in traffic ANYWHERE is unreasonable due to the lack of seat belt, airbags, a cage. I’m having some difficulty understanding the logic that says “car drivers don’t pay attention so let’s limit the bikers capabilities”. Cell phone use while driving is illegal in CA, but because of the disregard drivers exhibit for that law, we must clamp down on motorcyclists? Inattentive drivers and cell phone distracted or impatient drivers are just as dangerous to other drivers as they are bikers.
Don’t lane split if you are uncomfortable with it. Lane splitting DOES work in CA. I certainly won’t let youtube videos dictate what decisions I make. Idiots abound, everywhere.
Hey Jenny, great article!! Thanks for researching and stating the facts so well. I rode in CA, LA and San Jose for 50 years (now live in AZ). Lane splitting was a way of life. During rush hour(s) on the freeway many cars do move to the side of the lane to make room and being in between cars side by side was often a lot safer than being in line. Sure wish it was legal in AZ and strongly agree with you that it should be legal nation wide.
How about instead of lane spitting, just agree to take the outside left lane by the shoulder, rather than all over the road? Also, missing a bike splitting while changing lanes sounds a lot more like a biker problem, provided the car is signaling.
Also, California has walked back the legality of this practice. Its now neither allowed nor prohibited l, what9 that means.
Nah, that’s a wasteland IF, and I say IF, a shoulder exists, full of debris and whatnot. The large emergency lanes and runoff spaces are the same, full of junk. Nice if they exist, but only provide a safety space for an emergency maneuver or stop. None of the roadways and highways in CA are created equal. Lane splitting is advised to be kept between the #1 and #2 lanes, not all over the road. CHP officers lane split, and the CHP removing from their website a statement regarding lane splitting doesn’t affect the legality, nor expectation that it will or will not be followed. Common sense for everything. You mention “providing the car is signaling”, aye, therein lies the rub. So many vehicles do not signal, or signal in the middle of a lane change, and when the traffic crunches they are even more apt to NOT signal. SO, it falls upon the biker to exercise awareness and observation skills. Really, what should always be taking place anyway. The car changing lanes not seeing the bike so that is a biker problem? Again, the auto drivers pull in front of other cars like this constantly. The cell phone distractions and just plain not paying attention is exercised by cagers all the time, and other drivers and riders are all put at risk by these actions.
We lane split, CHP lane splits, those of us that split do our best to be reasonable and responsible.
I wonder if Jersey and especially NY drivers would ever be that respectful of motorcycles to allow us to safely split lanes. Around here in heavy traffic sometimes it’s every man for him/her self. Rt. 80 is always full of trucks heading to and from NYC blocking three lanes and sometimes one will jump into the fourth lane because it’s the only one moving a little bit.
Blinkers…all cars have blinkers??