As the hot sun hangs high here in summertime California, motorcyclists hit the freeways with those revved and chopped sounds that accompany their steel steeds.
It’s when you — the typical motorist — is stuck in gridlock that those revs and chops zip past your window. Now you’re wondering if those motorcyclists have any traffic rules to obey at all.
Trust us, motorcyclists have plenty of rules on the road, even when it comes to lane-splitting (also known as lane-sharing).
What’s lacking, however, is research on the topic. Studies have shown that lane-splitting can contribute to somewhere around five percent of all motorcycle crashes, according to this 2010 report out of Oregon, which added that the finding “should be considered with caution” because lane-splitting wasn’t pegged as the direct cause of those crashes.
With little substantive research on lane-splitting, California (where the practice is condoned by authorities) has been ground zero for the debate.
How It Works in California
A law exists in nearly all states that prohibit motorcyclists from lane-splitting. The wording of this Nebraska law will sum up what most other states have on the books.
But California, which has no laws explicitly prohibiting or allowing the practice, remains an outlier as the only state in the U.S. where lane-splitting motorcyclists face no legal restrictions.
So lane-splitting is a uniquely California thing, along with the motorcycle culture that has lent a distinctive feel to the freeways of the Golden State.
As the LA Times puts it: “Motorcycle lane-splitting is legal in California. Or at least it’s not illegal.”
So with no state law on the books, California’s Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) released guidelines this year that they would like motorcyclists to heed so that lane-splitting can be safe for both motorists and motorcyclists.
“Really, it has been limited anarchy out there,” Sgt. Mark Pope, a CHP coordinator of motorcycle safety, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Nobody has provided any guidance, so we decided it was time to figure that out.”
First off, here is a definition of lane-splitting from the OTS guidelines: “The process of a motorcyclist riding between lanes of stopped or slower moving traffic or moving between lanes to the front of traffic stopped at a traffic light.”
It’s also known as lane-sharing, filtering, or white-lining.
Part of the OTS’ guidelines is the “four R’s”:
–Be aware of roadway hazards.
Basically: ride safe and ride smart when you lane-split.
And, believe it or not, the OTS says that other motorists should obey these general rules of the road when it comes to lane-splitting motorcyclists:
–Remember that these motorcyclists aren’t lawbreakers, since lane-splitting “is not illegal in California” as long as it’s “done in a safe and prudent manner.”
–“Intentionally blocking or impeding” lane-splitting in any way that could harm a motorcyclist is illegal.
–Opening a door onto a motorcyclist is also illegal.
–Check your mirrors or blind spots, which can save you the trouble of inadvertently hitting a lane-splitter.
But don’t get too pissy, Mister Motorist. Without those guidelines to protect the Golden State’s much-loved motorcycle culture, some seminal parts of American pop culture might be unrecognizable: Billy and Captain America might’ve opened their “Easy Rider” roadtrip in an entirely different place; “Sons of Anarchy’s” S.A.M.C.R.O. might be riders in Nevada instead of NorCal; and Route 66 might not be the open-road Mecca it is for motorcyclists everywhere.
Nevada Legalization Effort Stalls, Brings Up Questions
Just as California traffic safety officials released guidelines in the hopes of managing lane-splitting safety, lawmakers in nearby Nevada looked to do the same safety management with AB 236.
Lane-splitting, currently illegal by Nevada law, would have been legalized by AB 236 under certain provisos, like not riding faster than 30 mph. As the bill progressed through the legislative process, those provisos got more restrictive.
After overwhelming support in the Nevada Assembly, state senators added an amendment that would have made lane-splitting legal only at 10 mph.
The amendment didn’t stop senators from voting the bill down in May, which still leaves lane-splitters in Nevada on the wrong side of the law.
Consider the Motorcyclist’s Perspective
But the debate over AB 236 highlights the issue in interesting ways.
Lane-splitters might seem inherently dangerous to average drivers, but they likely don’t consider the life of a motorcyclist without the option of lane-splitting:
A motorcyclist could easily end up a fatal statistic when sandwiched between two cars.
Traffic safety officials in Nevada released this presentation during the debate over AB 236, showing that 1 out of every 5 motorcycle crashes in 2011 involved rear-ending. What’s worse is such crashes are “more dangerous,” with 80 percent of them ending in injury or death.
To put it bluntly, Nevada Assemblyman Richard Carrillo (a self-described “rider”) offered this perspective as lawmakers debated AB 236:
“Will I have a Chevrolet emblem on my forehead when they decide to squish me between their car and the vehicle that is stopped? Sometimes it is a little unnerving.”
California Proposal Sought Stricter Rules
A legislative effort in California about lane-splitting also stalled this year. But SB 350 would have imposed stricter rules on lane-splitters than Nevada’s AB 236, including whittling the practice of lane-splitting down to legal only when on divided highways with three or more lanes and in traffic jams.
SB 350 was ultimately withdrawn, with its legislative sponsor saying that he would wait on the results of a safety study from the University of California Berkeley to mull reviving his effort.
Helmet Use Also at Forefront of Debate for Motorcyclists
In yet another state, Michigan, the major question over motorcyclists is not about lane-splitting but helmet use instead.
According to an analysis from the Highway Loss Data Institute released in May, injury claims for Medpay, (a type of coverage for motorcyclists’ crash injuries) in Michigan got more severe after the state loosened its rules on helmet use in 2012.
What changed was requiring riders under 21 years old to use helmets, instead of previously requiring all riders to do so.
“Motorcyclists are sustaining more injuries per crash or more serious ones after the law change than before,” HLDI vice president Matt Moore said in a statement.
And, unlike lane-splitting, states across the U.S. have a patchwork of rules when it comes to helmet use. Twenty-eight states have helmet laws that cover segments of the motorcycling population (usually underage riders), 19 require helmet use for all motorcyclists, and three have no helmet requirements at all.
Go Easy, Rider
Back on the topic of lane-splitting, the final word from motorists about whether they’re okay with it or not is (forgive the pun) pretty much split.
An OTS survey released before the new lane-splitting guidelines showed that, a sizable 40 percent of all respondents erroneously thought lane-splitting is illegal.
The survey also revealed a scary stat: 1 out of every 10 lane-splitters had been hit by a vehicle.
A few more scary stats came from the survey’s findings about lane-splitters who reported that they had been hit by cars: 1.5 percent were run over by the car; 3.3 percent were hit by one or more cars; almost 10 percent were knocked down; just over 8 percent had severe injuries; and a little more than 13 percent sustained scrapes and bruises.
So listen to the California OTS and go easy, rider — their guidelines might just keep you safe.
With no laws explicitly prohibiting or allowing the practice, California is the only state in the U.S. where lane-splitting motorcyclists face no legal restrictions.
(Photo courtesy of Nathan Bittinger)