Close to Home: Lane splitting by motorcycles is a safety measure not a hazard

Those of us who commute regularly on our freeway system have become accustomed to motorcycles “lane splitting” or riding in between lanes of vehicles. This appears to be a practice that some motorists understand and approve, while angering and upsetting others - leading, in the worst of cases, to road rage and intentionally causing motorcycles to crash.

If we are driving in slow, stop-and-go traffic, as is common on Highway 101 here in Sonoma and Marin counties, we are likely not in the best frames of mind already. To have motorcycles passing us by riding in the gap between lanes does not tend to bring out our most charitable impulses.

So it can be understood that some motorists become resentful, angry and occasionally act out by intentionally and dangerously blocking the rider. Perhaps if motorists understood the reasoning behind lane splitting, tolerance would improve.

To begin with, many motorists do not realize that this practice is legal in California and enjoys the blessing of our public safety professionals and the California Highway Patrol. How, you may ask, could this have come to be? While seemingly counter-intuitive, the answer will surprise many. Researchers at UC Berkeley completed a traffic safety study in 2014 that concluded that lane splitting was, in fact, an effective highway safety measure. Accidents are reduced and fewer motorcyclists are injured when lane splitting is permitted.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation Fatality Analysis Reporting System has documented that the second-most common cause of car/motorcycle collisions is a car or truck hitting a motorcycle from behind. This most commonly occurs in stop-and-go traffic.

The consequences of such collisions are far more serious than car-on-car fender benders since the rider has virtually no protection when hit by a car. Such collisions, in addition to injuring the rider, often spill gasoline from the bike onto the roadway as it lays on the pavement, introducing the danger of a highway fire.

The Department of Transportation FARS data also show that motorcycle fatalities are 30 percent lower (controlling for population size) in California than in Florida or Texas, both of which have similarly long motorcycle-riding seasons, but neither of which permits lane splitting. It is also worth noting that lane splitting encourages some commuters to ride vs. drive, thereby reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gases somewhat.

Of course, it is also feasible that an angry reaction to lane splitting may be encouraged by a minority of riders who lane split recklessly and at speeds far higher than the 30 mph maximum that safe riding requires when lane splitting. And since the bikes that tend to do this are often loud, they draw attention and form the basis for negative stereotypes of riders.

Admittedly, there are a minority of riders who engage in dangerous riding habits, including lane splitting at unsafe speeds. At the same time, there are a minority of motorists who routinely drive recklessly with little regard for the public safety. These are the likely candidates for cutting off riders who lane split legally and safely. Our police departments and highway patrol officers do their best to bring these dangerous scofflaws to justice, be they on two wheels or four.

In the meantime, the rest of us can respect the law and demonstrate respect for our fellow highway travelers by making space for lane splitters or by lane splitting courteously and safely.

Tom Cooke is a professor emeritus of Sonoma State University and a member of the Redwood Riders Motorcycle Club. He lives in Santa Rosa.

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