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.
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.