Examining the California Lane Splitting Law
For the most part, lane splitting is welcomed in California. That's because a new law, effective at the beginning of 2017, clarified a legal gray area for motorcyclists seeking to "split lanes," or drive down the lane line between two rows of stopped or moving cars.
Despite being legal, lane splitting is still controversial. Motorcyclists say the practice puts them at the head of a line of cars, making them more visible and allowing them to shoot out and defensively find the best road position. Drivers express concern that lane splitting could put the biker in a more dangerous position if a car starts to change lanes and doesn’t see the biker. They say lane splitting is risky. Could they be jealous? Well, maybe. But the California Highway Patrol says there are right ways to lane split and some wrong ways that could get you a ticket, despite the new rules.
As of this writing, California is the only state to allow this practice legally.
Backstory on California Lane Splitting Law
It’s been kind of a tradition to lane split in California. While it was always a legal gray area, if you played by the rules (i.e. don’t drive like your leather-clad butt is on fire), you generally could thread the needle in traffic. Especially in stalled traffic (an all-too-frequent occurrence in the sunshine state).
In fact, one of the biggest proponents of lane splitting has always been the California Highway Patrol. They commissioned a 2014 study that showed lane splitting, when done properly at or below the speed limit, did not put motorcyclists at higher risk of harm. In fact, the study suggested:
- Lane splitters were less likely to be rear-ended.
- They were less likely to suffer a head injury.
- Exceeding the speed limit while lane splitting creates more risk of an accident.
The American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) has endorsed lane splitting, and their website actively offers to help organizations seeking to ratify the practice in their states. The Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) also endorses legal lane splitting laws with “reasonable” restrictions.
Lane splitting initially became a thing back when motorcycles were predominately air-cooled. But today, nearly all of the new models have a flowing liquid that keeps them from overheating.
Many European nations allow the practice, and by 2013, the CHP issued their first guidelines on the practice. After a number of complaints about the perceived safety of lane splitting, the guidelines were removed from the CHP website. Lane splitting continued in that legal gray area up until 2016, when a unanimous vote by the California legislature kicked lane splitting back to the CHP for guidelines on how to do it safely. The rules are:
- Lane splitting is cool as long as you don’t travel more than 10 mph above everyone else.
- Don’t do it if traffic is going over 30 mph.
- Go for the split on the #1 and #2 lanes only (those are the lanes to the far left).
- Skip splitting if the weather is bad, or if you’re trying to get around wide trucks.
- Be alert.
It should be noted there is incredible latitude given to the CHP to enforce these rules.
So, what’s the final word on lane splitting?
Controversy aside, whether you lane split or sit is entirely up to you. The AMA agrees, saying, “Lane splitting is an issue of choice.” Motorcyclists that engage in lane splitting swear by it; those that are concerned about safety can avoid it because the California Lane Splitting Law is entirely optional. Decide for yourself if your bike and your skills are up to the challenge.CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons