Originally posted February 22, 2006
Updated: September 23, 2009; August 3, 2014
By Ray Kim
One of the most hotly debated topics in motorcycling is whether or not lane splitting is a good idea. To the hardened motorcycle commuters in California’s big cities, it’s a necessity and a huge time saver. To just about anyone else who’s seen it done, it’s insane.
Update August 3, 2014: The DMV and California Highway Patrol have both removed guidelines for lane splitting from their websites and printed materials, likely in an effort to distance themselves from condoning the practice (though it remains legal).
Generally speaking, here are the broad arguments on both sides of the fence:
- It saves time for the rider.
- It’s better than sitting in traffic, waiting to get rear-ended.
- If riders are splitting lanes instead of taking a space in traffic, everyone moves faster.
- It’s too dangerous.
- Car drivers resent it.
- Cars get damaged by careless riders.
- Is getting rear-ended worse than getting knocked off your bike while splitting lanes?
Even the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, the recognized authority on motorcycle safety issues in the U.S., tries to steer clear of controversy when it comes to lane splitting. Here’s an abstract from a June 9, 2004 Los Angeles Times Article:
“For the record, Ken Glaser, spokesman for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, says lane-splitting is not part of the foundation’s instructional curriculum for motorcycle riders. ‘We don’t take a position pro or con on the issue,’ said Glazer. If riders want to get away from heavy traffic on the freeways, ‘we recommend they use the carpool lanes.'”
So Is It Illegal or Not?
The only place in the U.S. where it’s allowed is California, and even then there is no law that explicitly allows the practice – there’s just no law that explicitly disallows it. One law that can be applied to lane splitting is California Vehicle Code 22350, or the Basic Speed Law, which has been in effect in its current form since September 20, 1963:
“No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.”
The California Highway Patrol’s FAQ page states the following (update: this page was removed in July 2014, signaling a reluctance by the CHP to endorse lane splitting):
“Can motorcycle riders “split” lanes and ride between other vehicles?
Lane splitting by motorcycles is permissible but must be done in a safe and prudent manner.”
The open-ended language leaves a lot of leeway for an officer to determine whether or not a lane splitter deserves a citation. If traffic is at a complete standstill and cars are unable to move or change lanes, splitting lanes at a low speed seems reasonably safe. If traffic is moving at 20 mph and a motorcyclist is splitting lanes at 60 mph, that could easily be construed as beyond “safe and prudent.” Basically it’s purely a judgment call on an officer’s part.
The Public Perception
Just as important as whether or not it’s legal, lane splitting is somewhat tolerated and expected by California drivers. Many drivers will surprisingly move their cars in heavy traffic to accommodate lane splitters. In other states, drivers are less apt to expect lane splitters and may not be as generous. That’s not to say the drivers in California like it either. In fact, on January 12, 2006, a disc jockey on San Francisco radio station LIVE 105 caused quite an uproar with statements he made on the air about his resentment of motorcyclists splitting lanes while he sat in traffic. He’s originally from Chicago and had no idea the practice is not illegal in California. The audio clip has since been removed but here are some of the more memorable quotes:
“One of my pet peeves is people on motorcycles who think they don’t have to wait in traffic like everybody else..”
“Just because your car is skinny, that would be like someone in a Mini Cooper squeezing between traffic, and weaving in and out…”
“…like, you can’t do that…”
“…and nothing would make me happier than to watch somebody… open a door and take you out if you’re trying to squeeze through people who have been sitting in traffic for 45 minutes…”
“I don’t wanna see anybody get hurt honestly… but I mean you get so mad, so frustrated…”
If you want to see what the response and result was from all of this, click here to read the Bay Area Rider’s Forum (yes, that spells BARF) thread that really got everything going. In short, motorcycle awareness got a little boost out of the whole thing. Regardless, it’s no picnic out there when it comes to what the car driving general public thinks about lane splitting. Many of them resent it for a myriad of reasons, and you should keep that in mind when you think about whether or not you’re going to do it.
Is There Any Data to Support Either Argument?
There is no hard, reliable data on whether or not lane splitting is safer than sitting in traffic. The only official, credible motorcycle safety study ever conducted in the U.S. was the famous “Hurt Report” conducted in 1979 by USC professor Harry Hurt and commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Hurt’s team studied motorcycle accidents for two years and produced a multitude of useful statistics, but lane splitting itself was not a focus of the study. Hurt however has become a well respected figure when it comes to motorcycle safety and he certainly has something to say about it:
A quote from Harry Hurt that appeared in a January 8, 1996 Los Angeles Times Article:
“One of the most critical things for motorcyclists on the freeway is all the junk on the road,” Hurt said. “If he is in a lane following a car, he can’t see what’s on the freeway until it comes flying up in front of him. If he’s out there splitting lanes, on the other hand, he can see what’s coming.”
This quote is from an interview of Hurt by David Hough, a very well respected motorcycle journalist and author of Proficient Motorcycling:
“Everybody has their own ideas and opinions about this issue, but there are no recent factual data of any kind. No benefactor has supported any further research to investigate this issue. Hopefully, the future will bring help and financial support for these and other questions.”
This is from an interview by Art Friedman on MotorcycleCruiser.com:
“Hurt had been rear-ended and had required surgery on his neck. His brand new truck suffered major damage too. ‘The stupid part,’ said Hurt, ‘was that if I’d been on a motorcycle, I wouldn’t have had the accident. I would have split lanes and never gotten hit.'”
So Should I Do It or Not?
The best thing to do is to take in all the factors involved and decide for yourself. One thing’s for sure, you shouldn’t do it if you’re not comfortable or confident in your evasive riding skills. Here’s a list of tips that every experienced lane splitter seems to share:
- Splitting is safest when traffic is stopped and cars are unable to move or change lanes.
- Don’t travel too much faster than the cars you’re passing. The faster you’re passing cars while splitting, the more you are putting yourself in danger.
- The lanes on the far left are much safer to split than the lanes on the far right.
- Drivers are more erratic near freeway transitions and off ramps.
- Lane changing occurs more frequently when traffic is slowing down; be very cautious at those moments. Aggressive drivers looking for faster lanes may not look for you.
- Watch every indicator you can: turn signals, tires pointed one way or the other, drivers’ heads, etc.
- Cover those brakes.
- If traffic starts moving at a reasonable pace, stop splitting and jump back into a lane.
- If you can’t fit between the next set of cars, wait. Don’t expect them to make room for you.
- Passing on the outside shoulders is illegal; the right shoulder is very dangerous near an off ramp.
- Some freeways and highways have narrower lanes than others.
- Keep your bike off the Botts Dots (those round reflective things between lanes).
- Watch your mirrors for other bikers behind you that want to go even faster. Pull into a lane and let them pass; don’t let them intimidate you into riding faster than you really want to.
For the record, I’ve done my fair share of lane splitting. I tend to be rather conservative while doing it but it’s definitely saved me some serious time and aggravation.
Miscellaneous Quotes and Links
This section may be appended from time to time. A Google search for “lane splitting,” “lane splitting accident,” or similar terms will bring up countless results including forum threads. Forums are interesting as people shoot opinions (informed or not) straight from the hip. The few that I’ve included here are from one of my home forums. There are infinite others.
This article from the Los Angeles times details the California DMV’s and California Highway Patrol’s decisions to remove all language regarding lane splitting from their websites and printed materials as of July 2014.
“The DMV will not be including lane splitting language in the next revisions of handbooks in the next revision of 2015,” — DMV Information Officer Jaime Garza
- A quote from California attorney and motorcycle law specialist Russ Brown’s web site:
“California motorcycle accident law allows for lane splitting, although anyone lane splitting needs to be aware of the possibility for injury, as many car drivers do not understand this and are not looking for a rider coming up between the lanes of traffic. California motorcycle law as it applies to lane splitting requires that the rider do so with reasonable safety, including passing at a safe speed and changing lanes in a safe manner. We have even had cases where an angry driver has opened their door into a motorcycle splitting lanes causing injury and damages.”
- Here’s a Los Angeles Times article about lane splitting that originally appeared May 19, 2004. The article did have some errors though, and the Times posted these corrections later on:
CORRECTION: SEE CORRECTION APPENDED; Lane-splitting — In a column about motorcycle lane-splitting in Wednesday’s Highway 1 section, Candysse Miller was identified as being with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. She is executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California. Also, Ron Burch was identified as a sergeant with the California Highway Patrol. His title is CHP officer and spokesman.; Motorcycles — In a column on motorcycle lane-splitting in the May 19 edition of Highway 1, Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California, was incorrectly identified as being from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In the same column, California Highway Patrol spokesman Ron Burch was mistakenly identified as a sergeant with the department. His title is CHP officer and spokesman.
- I posted a poll on the Bay Area Riders Forum asking how many people had hit car mirrors while lane splitting (or “lane sharing” as some of the motorcycle rights-sensitive explained to me). As of 3/6/2006, 163 riders have responded:
- 36% have never hit any mirrors
- 38% have hit 1 or 2 mirrors
- 17% have hit 3 to 10 mirrors
- 9% have hit 10 or more mirrors
- A similar poll was also posted (not by me) on the SoCalSVRiders.org forum (now defunct) with somewhat similar results from 86 respondents:
- 40% have never hit any mirrors
- 29% have hit 1 or 2 mirrors
- 23% have hit 3 to 10 mirrors
- 9% have hit 10 or more mirrors