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.