Should motorcyclists be allowed to split lanes?

Mary Lou Jay

Have you ever been passed by a motorcycle that’s riding between lanes on the road? The practice, called lane splitting or lane sharing, can be annoying to car drivers – who also may be a bit envious that someone else actually is cutting through congested traffic.

Lane splitting is illegal in every state except California, but the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade association representing motorcycle manufacturers and distributors, would like to see that change. A new position paper from the council supports state laws allowing lane splitting “under reasonable restrictions.”

Motorcycle advocacy groups in several states, such as New York, are pushing for state legislation that would permit lane splitting. In addition, is promoting the practice and tracking legislation.

In its position paper, the motorcycle council says the practice offers many benefits, both for motorcyclists and other motorists. Representatives of the council declined to comment for this story.

“Many California motorcyclists embrace the technique because it gives them the option to pass slow-moving or stopped traffic, whether on a highway or multi-lane street,” says the council, adding that other motorists may appreciate the reduced traffic congestion that results from lane splitting.

According to the position paper, other advantages to lane splitting include:

A motorcyclist will be less tired because he won’t have to constantly shift and brake in traffic.
A motorcyclist won’t be exposed to as much heat in the summer and to as much automotive exhaust year-round.
Motorcycle engines (especially those that are air-cooled) will sustain less damage because motorcyclists won’t be forced to idle in traffic for extended periods.

Critics of lane splitting worry about the potential for accidents if cars change lanes and the motorcyclists are moving between those lanes. To counter these concerns, the motorcycle council cites studies (such as the James Ouellet’s 2011 report called “Motorcycle Lane Splitting on California Freeways”) that suggest that lane splitting is no more hazardous than having motorcycles travel normally in traffic lanes, since a car driver may sideswipe a motorcyclist whether the biker is moving is a lane or between one.

The American Motorcycle Association, which promotes motorcyclists’ rights, also supports the legalization of lane splitting beyond California.

“While we’re not actively advocating for it, we do support local and state groups that are making efforts to get it legalized, because we see benefits occurring from it in California. Specifically, lane sharing helps reduce traffic congestion,” says Pete terHorst, a spokesman for the American Motorcycle Association.

Opposition to lane splitting?

Citing a lack of good research, several traffic safety organizations contacted for this story say they have no position on motorcycle lane splitting.

Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says: “It’s not something that we’ve taken an official position on, but it raises some concerns, and it’s certainly not something that we would endorse without a lot more information.”

Adkins notes that while overall traffic deaths have been falling nationwide, motorcycle deaths are one area where states aren’t making progress. Nationally, motorcycle deaths have increased in 13 of the past 14 years.

Adkins says his group is more concerned about efforts to repeal helmet laws than it is about lane splitting. “But it won’t surprise me if we start to hear of states considering supporting splitting because the industry groups are very influential,” he says.

The Marine Corps already has taken a stance against lane splitting. In June 2012, the Marines announced it no longer would be allowed at West Coast locations, such as Camp Pendleton in California.

The California experience

In May 2012, the California Office of Traffic Safety released a survey of California motorists’ and motorcyclists’ attitudes toward lane splitting. It revealed that while 87 percent of motorcycle riders say they split lanes, only 53 percent of vehicle drivers knew that lane splitting was legal in California.

Although lane splitting has been allowed in California for some time, no in-depth studies have been conducted regarding whether it’s a factor in wrecks involving motorcycles. The University of California, Berkeley, is in the midst of a one-year study of the role of lane splitting in auto accidents.

Jaime Coffee, a spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol, says lane splitting shouldn’t be attempted by inexperienced riders. State guidelines for lane splitting “assume a high level of riding competency and experience,” she says.

In February 2013, the California Highway Patrol for the first time issued guidelines for lane splitting.

“There is a need to acknowledge lane splitting is being done in California and a need to help people understand what is reasonable,” California Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Pope told the Sacramento Bee. “Until now, no one in authority has said how to do it safely.”

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