Recently, a bill in California that would have made it explicitly legal for motorcycles to split lanes in traffic gained a good bit of traction before being shelved for the year due to concerns lawmakers had about how it should be implemented. Bill Quirk, the assemblyman behind the bill, intends to bring it back next year, and if it passes, it would set an important precedent for other states to reconsider their stances on lane splitting.
While lane splitting is illegal in every state except for California, bills to change that have all been unsuccessfully proposed in other states such as Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, and Texas. Even though the Arizona bill passed, it ended up being vetoed.
When most people think of lane splitting, they usually imagine some guy on a Hayabusa flying down the highway doing 135 miles per hour, clipping the occasional side-view mirror, and generally putting themselves and everybody else at risk of having an accident. Most people have at least one experience with a motorcyclist doing something like this, which means it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that lane splitting is looked down upon.
If it’s done that way, the irresponsible, high-risk and no-reward way, you’re not going to get any arguments from me that it shouldn’t be allowed. If you’re already traveling at highways speeds, you have little to gain by splitting lanes. Sure, there’s the thrill of intentionally putting your life in danger, but the extra few minutes it takes to get to your exit at 75 miles per hour instead of 115 miles per hour isn’t exactly going to ruin your day.
University of California – Berkeley has studied motorcycle safety and lane splitting for years, and in its most recently-released study earlier this year, it reiterated what previous studies had found – that lane splitting is safe if done at low enough speeds and if riders aren’t traveling significantly faster than other traffic.
Specifically, researchers found that lane splitting is safe if traffic is moving 50 miles per hour or less and if motorcyclists don’t exceed the speed of traffic by more than 15 miles per hour. Their report then went on to caution that “[a] significant number of motorcyclists lane-split in fast-moving traffic or at excessive speed differentials. These riders could lower their risk of injury by restricting the environments in which they lane-split and by reducing their speed differential when they do choose to lane-split.”
Clearly, as long as lane splitting is done responsibly, it doesn’t put riders in significantly more danger than they would be otherwise. In fact, it also has the potential to keep them safer. The fear of being rear-ended is always present in slow traffic or at an intersection, and if riders are allowed to move between lanes, it makes being rear-ended much less likely.
If the best research available on lane splitting shows that it can be safe, you would think that other states would be willing to change their laws accordingly, but sadly, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Allowing lane splitting also comes with a distinct advantage – it reduces congestion. Transport & Mobility Leuven, a Belgian research firm, found in a 2012 study that if all motorcycles riders ride between lanes when traffic comes to a stop, replacing 10% of cars with motorcycles reduced travel times through a congested area by 63%. That decreased travel time wasn’t just for the motorcyclists, either. It was for everyone on the road.
If cities want to decrease their congestion, it only makes sense to allow lane splitting. It isn’t dangerous, and the naturally slow pace of traffic lends itself perfectly to the practice. Everyone would be able to get places more quickly, and creating an incentive for people to ride motorcycles and scooters would get more cars off the road, increasing the efficiency of the bus system.
Legislating when and how riders can lane split makes sense, but not allowing the practice at all is irrational at best. It’s been a long time coming, but now is the time for other states to finally allow motorcyclists in the U.S. to lane split.
Follow Collin on Twitter at @CS_CollinW