On Thursday, the California State Assembly took a big step forward in formalizing so-called “lane-splitting.” What this means is that the assembly has authorized the California Highway Patrol to establish guidelines for the supposedly safe operation of motorcycles sharing the same lanes with parallel cars and driving in between cars stopped in traffic, usually along the center dividing line.
If this practice sounds dangerous, trust me, it sure as hell feels that way when a motorcycle comes barreling past you, inches away from your car or maybe your left arm, at three times your speed while you’re moving slowly or are stopped altogether. Up until now, lane-splitting hasn’t officially been legal but it hasn’t really been illegal either in California. It’s just one of those things the CHP tended to overlook unless a trooper considered it egregious. Still, there’s a reason California will be the only state in the union so far to put lane-splitting on the books.
I wrote about this late last year and got the predictable backlash from the motorcycling community, many of whose members decided that the best response was to just call me a giant pussy for not riding a motorcycle. The logic seemed to be that since riding one on heavily traveled streets and freeways was so inherently dangerous, I should be totally cool with, you know, creating an even more dangerous situation for both motorcyclists and drivers. Anyway, below is that original piece, because I’m apparently a glutton for punishment.
If you live anywhere in Southern California, it’s happened to you — more than once. In fact, it’s probably happened often enough to the point where your friends, co-workers or relatives have all gotten used to being regaled with expletive-laden rants about what some asshole just did on the freeway that almost cost your car its side-mirror or you your left arm. It happened to me just the other day, standing at a dead stop in traffic and suddenly, terrifyingly having to whisk my hand through the open window a split-second before someone came barreling between the frozen cars, missing my mirror — and me — by no more than a couple of inches. It was the closest call I’ve had yet, but I can’t imagine it’ll be the last one I’ll ever have.
California is the only state in the U.S. that allows for a practice called “lane-splitting.” For the uninitiated, if you own a motorcycle in the state, you’re permitted to ride between lanes and essentially weave between cars, particularly when those cars are stopped in traffic. What that means is that while everyone else is moving slowly or is stopped altogether, motorcycles can pass by — often whiz by — in incredibly close quarters and can do so with impunity. Lane-splitting isn’t exactly legal, but it isn’t in and of itself illegal either. If you come to California from another state and hit the roads, though, it won’t be long before you’re asking yourself how something like driving between cars on the freeway isn’t absolutely illegal. It’s that dangerous at face-value. There’s a reason so many states don’t allow it.
But here in California, a state that bans smoking in a car with a child and a host of other offenses the state feels are a threat to our safety, lane-splitting — however controversial — is perfectly okay. There’s even a piece of legislation being proposed that would officially make the practice legal and would outline the rules and regulations for proper lane-splitting. The latter half of that equation would certainly be welcome, but any driver in this state — certainly in gridlocked Southern California — will tell you that a prohibition on motorcycles traveling more than 15 miles-per-hour more than the traffic around it likely won’t make a dent in the number of guys hauling ass through a space that’s sometimes a mere three feet apart and is constantly fluctuating. What’s more, the legal adoption of lane-splitting will shift the burden more to the car drivers when it comes to any potential accidents, since it will then be codified that drivers have to stay rigidly hyper-aware of people coming up along their sides, in their very lanes, much faster than they’re traveling.
The point motorcycle riders use to argue for the practice of lane-splitting is two-fold. On the one hand, they say that since the engines of many motorcycles are air-cooled, then need to constantly keep moving forward to prevent overheating; on the other, they claim that motorcycles sitting in traffic only adds more traffic and more opportunity for fender-benders since it’s one more vehicle to possibly get hit from behind. The second argument barely holds water since the addition to the typical freeway madness would be negligible. There are a lot of motorcycles in this state — nearly 800,000 of them — but when you consider the number of total vehicles on the freeway on any given day and spread across the entire expanse of California that’s a drop in the bucket. The former argument — well, tough shit. The fact that you bought an air-cooled vehicle in a place whose urban areas are packed with drivers of all kinds shouldn’t give all motorcyclists the ability to scare the hell out of stopped drivers or actually get them into accidents.
There aren’t a lot of hard statistics on the number of accidents caused by lane-splitting, although a report put together at Berkeley back in May said that of the 5,969 motorcycle collisions studied between 2012 and 2013, a full 997 were lane-splitting at the time and just a couple of months ago there was a crash involving lane-splitting along the heavily traveled 101 in Northern California and it left the motorcyclist dead. Both anecdotal evidence and hard facts show that an overwhelming number of California drivers think lane-splitting is dangerous and disapprove of the practice. Back in 2012, at least half of all drivers surveyed by the California Office for Traffic Safety assumed lane-splitting had to be illegal, two-thirds disapproved of it and, as the L.A. Times reported, 7% actually admitted that they’d moved to block motorcycles they saw coming up behind them doing it. Granted, when everybody’s stranded in the middle of a parking lot, frustrations at those who just zoom through it all are understandable. But there’s no way it’s simply driver jealousy. Again, everybody has their stories about being cut off or nearly hit by motorcycles that seemed to come out of nowhere and thinking to themselves there’s no way on earth that kind of thing can be okay.
The legislation to officially recognize lane-splitting in California, Assembly Bill 51, was tabled this year after passing with bipartisan support, but its author plans to resurrect it in 2016. Notably, motorcycle riders’ advocacy groups are against the bill because they say it’s overly restrictive, even though it does have the backing of the Personal Insurance Federation of California. Motorcycles are all about freedom and it’s something their riders cherish and like to celebrate, but the fact remains that what they’re doing on the freeways and streets of California needs to be tightly regulated. Especially when it involves driving in lanes occupied by other vehicles or making their own lanes out of the tight space in between traffic.
Maybe you have to drive out here to understand the danger and fear caused by a 600-pound rocket careening past you at three times your speed or more — or simply weaving quickly between you and another car, barely missing the both of you — but once you do you really are left with that question: how the hell is this legal?
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.