Archive for the category “motorbikes”

Clowns to the left of me. Jokers to the right.

California, in its perpetually frustrating benevolence, allows “lane splitting” for motorcycles. Generally this means that a motorcycle can ride between two lanes of vehicles going the same direction. Moving between stopped or slow lanes of traffic on the motorcycle is an interesting experience, to say the least. A rider has to be hyper-aware and anticipate driver behavior. The cars surrounding the bike create a “tunnel” effect. Additionally, riders get an interesting glimpse into other vehicles being so close to them and up higher than a lot of cars. Your fellow commuters are doing all sorts of interesting things when they are stuck in traffic. Getting dressed, putting on makeup, reading books, doing sudoku, performing and receiving sexual favors. I have seen all of these and more.

There isn’t a law or regulation that specifically states that it is allowed or prohibited (California does this a lot) so it exists in a grey area. However, the courts and law enforcement have traditionally permitted the practice if it is done “safely”. The California Highway Patrol’s official policy is that lane splitting is “permissible but must be done in a safe and prudent manner”. So it is not illegal, it’s not expressly legal and law enforcement can still pull over lane splitters for acting poorly. Commonly, law enforcement will use the “excluding a safe speed” section in the Vehicle Code as the justification for a ticket. The general guideline is that it should be done ONLY between the two farthest left lanes and the motorcycle should stay within 10 mph of the ambient vehicle traffic.

The primary policy rationales for allowing lane splitting are: (1) Many rear-end accidents occur when on the freeway traffic, has stopped. Motorcycles, should they be required to to stop with traffic, are ill equipped for a rear-end collision (or any collision). Motorcyclists are 39 times more likely to die in a collision than persons in a passenger vehicle; and (2) Many motorcycle engines are air cooled. If a motorcycle is stuck in traffic for more than a half hour or so, the engine will overheat, particularly on hot days.

In practice, lane splitting is controversial at best. It offends some people’s sense of fairness. “Why do I have to wait in line and he gets to go to the front?” Some drivers get understandably nervous when a motorcycle appears in between them and another car. Sometimes the motorcycle appears out of nowhere and may have some loud exhaust pipes that scare drivers (this still happens to me from time to time). No one is entirely sure that there aren’t more accidents from lane splitting than there would be if motorcycles had to wait in line. Amazingly, only 53% of drivers know that lane splitting is “legal”.

This lack of awareness leads to some interesting behavior. The usual response is the standard middle finger or a honk. People have thrown things out their windows at me. My favorites are the drivers that try to block the lane splitting. I have a standard response for them. First I have to ensure that their windows are down. If not, I’ll move next to them and make the universal “roll down the windows” gesture. Surprisingly, most people go ahead and roll their windows down when you ask them. I guess they want to say what they have to say. I can’t really hear them with the engine noise, ear protection and the helmet I’m wearing. Once the window is down I position my exhaust pipes as close to the window as possible and rev the engine to about say 8000 rpm or so. Then I’m off and they’re still stuck in traffic.

Sometimes an intrepid soul will track me down. One particular time (I don’t believe I did the exhaust pipe in the widow maneuver with this guy) a driver insisted that I pull over and I obliged. He leaped out of his car and ran up to me while I was getting off the bike. I took some time to take my helmet off and let him scream at me for a while and say what he had to say. When he was done I informed him that I wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was incredulous at this suggestion. We were at an impasse on the overpass and he was starting to repeat himself. I started putting my helmet on and said I was leaving. “You can’t leave!” he thundered.

“Oh, I’m not free to leave? Is this some sort of citizen’s arrest?” I asked. “You better be sure about this if you’re telling me I’m not free to leave.” I put my helmet on my bike and pulled out my phone while he stared at me. “Fine, I’ll call CHP,” I said. He turned and stomped back to the car, peeled out as best he could and gave me the bird. What a waste of twenty minutes.

Increased awareness of the legal status of lane splitting should make things better. Riders need to do their part and lane split safely and carefully. Divers, when you’re in traffic or at a stop light, check your side mirrors to see if a motorcycle is coming. Moving over in your lane a little to increase the lane splitting area will usually result in a small wave from the rider. Believe me, it is much appreciated when we share the road.

Flying on your motorcycle, watching all the ground beneath you drop

I used to commute on my motorcycle to Orange County quite a bit. I loved it. I realized that the time I was on the bike was some of the only time I was “unplugged”. No radio, ipod, etc. Just the sounds of the engine, dry clutch and the air buffeting me.

Riders have a credo of “Ride like you’re invisible”. Solid advice. Battling the “cagers”, a reference to people stuck in their cars, requires focus and punishes assumptions. The average driver is practically oblivious of any vehicle smaller than a Smart Car. This is especially true when traffic builds up (more on this later). When riding I felt hyper-aware. I would settle into a routine of mirror checking, monitoring far ahead in traffic, looking over my shoulder before changing lanes, all good stuff. Being exposed to the elements and large vehicles combined with the knowledge that any sort of misstep is going to really hurt provided the proper incentive to “keep the rubber side down”. Also good advice.

Sounds stressful, right? Why this supposed to be awesome? Counterintuitively, while riding I felt like my mind was free. The hyper-awareness and defensive riding were still there and working but I could almost let them operate in the background. I’d think through thorny work problems, plan for the future, and make mental lists.

Or I could ponder nothing, or everything. The 5 is mostly concrete slab down here. The concrete is grooved to help with runoff. I would lean out over the fairing, so I couldn’t see the bike carrying me an I felt like Superman. I would focus on the groove aligning with the front tire. It would feel like I was the needle on a record player going 75 mph.

I felt like I was an extension of the bike when out on the open road. As my riding improved I could us less effort and ride smoother. Pulling back slightly on the right handgrip caused the bike to lean to the left and turn slightly due to counter-steering. I could get the same result by pushing out on the left grip or pushing on the gas tank with my right knee. Freeway riding has a different skill set from riding a twisty mountain road.

The ride to work took me through Camp Pendleton. From time to time they are training in sight of the freeway. Troop carrier and other helicopters can swoop in right above the freeway. Seeing them prepare was a good reminder of their sacrifices and how good we have it. It is interesting to see what things would look like on the coast if it wasn’t developed. It’s beautiful.

Riding through Pendleton provided additional entertainment. Because it is not heavily patrolled, biker boyz use the stretch to do some wheelies at 80 mph. Various biker gang types would be in transit between LA and San Diego. They’d mostly dismiss any sort of a friendly biker-to-biker wave due to some sort of Harley v. sport bike tribalism. Or maybe flash some sort of gang sign. My favorites were the Marines that were late for work. They would scream across the base, instantly recognizable by their orange safety vests that they must wear on base. Every once in a while a gaggle of them would come zooming through traffic–splitting every lane on their GSX-Rs. More than once tagged along with them. We would weave our way through slugs of traffic and when one of us reached our exit, we’d exchange a nod. Sometimes it meant “Way to keep up, old dude”. From me, sometimes it meant “Thanks”.

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