The Truth About Lane Splitting

No one can say for sure… yet

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Earlier this year, after an Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) survey revealed that nearly half of California drivers were unaware that lane splitting is a legally tolerated practice in the Golden State, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) published Lane Splitting General Guidelines. Meant to bring awareness and promote safety among California’s motorists and motorcyclists, the publication also picked the scab off a festering controversy.

The comments section of any website reporting the survey lit up with opinionated diatribes from critics and supporters alike. Media liaisons from the CHP, Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), among others, were exhaustively quoted (some of whom were contacted for this story). Proponents and opponents debated the validity and safety of lane splitting with no resolve.

These discussions, arguments and accusations are relatively pointless because no empirical data exists on which to base an educated opinion. In fact, no motorcycle safety study ever conducted concludes with any authority the benefits and/or detriments of lane splitting.

Lane Splitting Guidelines

This will soon change, however, when a lane splitting-specific study commissioned by the CHP and conducted by the University of California, Berkeley begins releasing reports in early 2014. Dr. Tom Rice, Research Epidemiologist at the Safe Transportation Research & Education Center at UC Berkeley and his team are currently wrapping up data collection in the field, and cleaning and entering the data to be studied.

“The objectives of the project are to examine the practice of lane splitting and its safety implications and to examine helmet effectiveness for specific helmet characteristics,” says Rice.

He and his team have been collecting supplemental data during motorcycle collision investigations for a one-year period. Rice expects to have data on approximately 8,000 motorcycle collisions when finished.

Riding Safe: Crash Avoidance

“When the study is complete we should know if lane splitting is a significant safety risk or if it’s actually safer to be between lanes,” says CHP sergeant Mark Pope. “We looked at the other studies being conducted and decided they will not provide the data the CHP needs in regards to motorcyclists and their behaviors on the freeway,” he continues. “So after the Berkeley study concludes we’ll be able to speak intelligently when people ask if lane splitting is safe.”

The other studies to which Pope is referring is the Hurt Report from 1981, a recent MSF 100 Motorcyclist Naturalistic study conducted in conjunction with the Virginia Tech Traffic Institute, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Motorcycle Crash Causation Study. None of these specifically targeted lane splitting as a primary element of scrutiny.

The Hurt Report has long stood as the de facto source of information regarding motorcycle accidents in America, largely because no other resource was available until FHWA’s Motorcycle Crash Causation Study was funded years ago and continues to gather data into 2014. That study, like the Hurt Report, is broad-based and will provide little if any insight into motorcycle lane splitting.

 

Lane Splitting Traffic Congestion

Proponents say lane splitting reduces traffic congestion, opponents deny the claim. This image supports the former.

“Lane splitting is theoretically advantageous because there’s no way to statistically disprove it’s safer because there’s been no study from which to pull the information from,” says Dave Thom, a co-author of the Hurt Report.

The MSF’s study is being conducted utilizing motorcycles outfitted with electronic data acquisition systems in California where lane splitting is practiced, but also Arizona, Florida and Virginia where it is not.

“If we discover something about lane splitting it will be scientifically reliable,” says the MSF’s Rob Gladden. Preliminary findings are scheduled to be presented at the International Safety Council Meeting during the AIMExpo in Orlando, October 16-20.

Night Riding

Jim Ouellet, another co-author of the Hurt Report, did publish the study, Lane Splitting on California Freeways, in 2011 but that study combined the limited data gathered by studying freeway cameras from sigalert.com and combining that information with data from the Hurt Report.

“The paper doesn’t prove that lane splitting is safe but that more data needs to be collected,” says Ouellet.

Motorcycle Filtering

According to Wikipedia: “Lane splitting has been used to describe moving through traffic that is in motion while filtering is used to describe moving through traffic that is stopped.”

One thing the dozens of hours spent watching freeway cameras for three months during rush hour traffic did reveal is that many motorcyclists do not maintain a safe distance to the proceeding vehicle.

“I expected to see riders who weren’t splitting lanes getting rear-ended by cars, but, in fact, it turned out to be that riders who weren’t lane splitting were more likely to be the one striking the vehicle in front of them in a rear-end collision,” says Ouellet.

The Association of European Motorcycle Manufacturers (ACEM) with the support of the European Commission and other partners did publish the Motorcycle Accidents In Depth Study (MAIDS) (Version 2.0 released in April, 2009). Although this study included 921 accidents from five countries over the course of three years, the amount of information gained about lane splitting (filtering, as they refer to it in Europe) was negligible.

What’s the position of the AMA on lane splitting? AMA VP of Government Relations Wayne Allard confirms that a committee has been established to review lane splitting and determine the AMA’s official position.

For now, Allard encourages motorcyclists to abide by the law, but if there is to be a proliferation of lane splitting in the U.S. he says legislation should be at the state level, not the federal level. “The viability of lane splitting varies depending on geography, climate and what that state’s current policies on traffic management happen to be,” he says.

Lane Splitting 101

So far, states other than California, including Nevada, Oregon, Texas, etc., have considered legislation to legalize some form of lane splitting, but none have been signed into law.

“I can’t imagine living in a place where motorcyclists sit in line with cars,” says Thom, a resident of California. “It just seems to bizarre to me.”

Both Thom and Ouellet, whose careers revolve around the scientific understanding of traffic hazards, are lifelong motorcyclists and avid lane splitting proponents.

“As long as it’s done sensibly there’s no reason why a motorcycle should not split lanes,” says Thom. “Clearly there’s a whole lot of room within the word ‘sensibly’ to define what’s safe, prudent and so on, but I think the CHP guidelines certainly help us define sensible.”

According to the OTS study, the majority of motorcyclists intercepted confirmed that they practiced lane splitting when riding on California freeways.

OTS Chart Lanesplitting

With this amount of motorcyclists reporting to actively lane split, why is the practice disregarded by the MSF? The MSF is currently the contractor to the CHP for administering the California Motorcycle Safety Program (CMSP) which teaches the MSF Basic Rider course. So, right now, it’s an interesting dichotomy where the CHP is offering guidelines to proper lane splitting, while the MSF prefers motorcyclists to not lane split.

“In the classes in California, when the topic of lane splitting comes up, we turn it into a discussion about time and space,” says Gladden. “It’s a learning opportunity about how your time and space cushion is affected by lane sharing.”

To which Sgt. Pope replies, “When you choose to lane split you are giving up a space cushion to your right and left, however, you are gaining a space cushion to your front and your rear.”

Pope is part of the CHP’s Motorcycle Safety Unit, and he’s fond of pointing out that motorcycle safety is an oxymoron. “We understand that riding motorcycles is not about safety, it’s about managing risk,” he says.

Lane Splitting Sign

Lanesplittingislegal.com is a lane splitting advocate website from Oakland, CA.

“It becomes a math problem,” he continues. “You have three things to consider when riding a motorcycle: time, speed and distance, and you’re constantly calculating those three things. If you give up distance, you need to compensate for that in the other two categories.

It’s important to note that the CHP, DMV, DOT and OTS do not advocate lane splitting. “Just like we don’t advocate driving in the fog,” explains Pope. “Is driving in the fog safe? It can be argued that it is not safe, however it is allowed under California state law that if you, the driver, decide that the risk is worth it, then drive in the fog if you want to. And lane splitting is looked at the same way.”

In conclusion, with nothing more really to be said until results from the UC Berkeley study are made public, lane splitting will remain in a state of limbo in California and illegal in the other 49 states. Rice has promised to keep Motorcycle.com in the loop as data from his study becomes public. Stay tuned and hope for the best!

Update: The AMA Endorses Lane Splitting.

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  • Don Falloon

    Chief definitions of the CHP’s criteria is “safely and prudently.” This leaves it up to the interpretation of an officer as to whether you acted safely or prudently in any lane-splitting situation. Lane splitting isn’t as much of a white-knuckle ride for me as trying to maintain a safe spot behind one vehicle while another rides my butt.

    • Mike from Az

      Lane splitting at 60 mph, probably not prudent. Doing it when traffic is stopped or seriously congested, i.e. 30 or below, I can see that as ok. But doing it when traffic is light or moving, I don’t see the point.

      • Chris_in_Kalifornia

        Statistically it is more dangerous to lane split when traffic is almost stopped. Cage drivers are much more likely to suddenly change lanes with no warning whatsoever.

        • Jed Wheeler

          That’s been my experience as well.

  • Jed Wheeler

    I commute by motorcycle and lane split every day and I could not tell you how many times a car has slammed on the brakes or done something stupid like that in front of me and it was the fact that I was at the edge of the lane and able to slide past them that allowed me to avoid an accident. As long as people in cars are at least semi-cognizant of what’s going on around them and don’t merge without looking or attempt to block the lane on purpose, I’d always rather be between lanes.

    • Chris_in_Kalifornia

      heh, you and I know that having the cagers actually be aware of their surroundings is forlorn hope. I’ve seen them reading books, newspapers, putting on makeup, shaving etc. I saw one guy driving on the 405 in LA who had a pda on a mount on his dash, a computer going in the seat next to him and his cell phone tucked up to his ear all the while “driving” his car. Needless to say he was a bit erratic. I got the heck away from him as fast as I could.

      New cars are advertising that their vehicle actually applies the brakes if you forget or aren’t paying attention. Gee, why does anyone suppose that is being offered???

  • Bone Shaker

    I don’t so much as lane split on the highways as I ride on the far right side of the passing lane. In doing so, I’ve found that the slower traffic to the right of me can see me approaching if they are looking to move into the passing lane. If I don’t ride on the right half of the passing lane, cagers have moved left alongside of me without realizing I am there until after they are 3/4 of the way over.

    • Chris_in_Kalifornia

      Which lane is the passing lane when there’s 5 lanes each way and they are all full of cages? You go where you can.

  • http://www.macinations.net moldor

    Lane splitting is technically illegal in most states of Australia, and so it should be IF traffic is moving. Stationary traffic I can handle, but moving traffic is just too damn dangerous,.

    • Chris_in_Kalifornia

      Knowing your limitations is a good way to stay alive. On the other hand, maybe you should work on your situational awareness. You cannot focus on any one thing or even a few things while riding. A motorcycle requires all the attention and a lot of the multitasking of a fighter plane. Ok, maybe not. But I was assigned to a squadron in the air force whose commander was a fighter pilot who also rode motorcycles. He said it so I kind of think maybe it is true.

      • Paul Sanders

        that is why many riders refer to themselves as pilots. there is a lot going on, I wouldn’t have it any other way. all your senses are alive!!

        • Chris_in_Kalifornia

          it’s the exact opposite of the focus you need in something like a shooting contest where you focus in on one thing only. I did a lot of action shooting where you have to focus on what you’re shooting at and out of all the years I did it, I only managed that “focus in” one time and it was eerie. I saw the target and everything else went away. Did my fastest time ever to clear the targets, but that kind of focus will get you killed on the freeway, lane splitting or not. You have to be aware of EVERYTHING around you and yes. you’re right, it really makes you feel alive. When I drove the car I’d get home and my teeth would be grinding and I would be in a foul mood. When I got home on the bike, even if it was raining, I was a happy guy.

          I think EVERYONE who if physically capable and wants to drive a car, should be required to ride a motorcycle for at least 2 years before they are allowed to drive a car. People would be a lot more understanding of bikers if they did and the death toll from inattentive drivers would go way down.

          • Barry Baxter

            I’ve been a proponent of that idea for many years!

          • Jai S.

            Sounds like someone read “Practical Shooting, Beyond Fundamentals” by Brian Enos.

          • davidhoffman

            In the many other countries where a 16 year old is not going to be given an automobile to drive, you find people who have ridden scooters and motorcycles for many years before they ever drove an automobile. It seems to work well at keeping automobile drivers somewhat more aware of motorcyclists. I once saw a television show about potential London taxicab drivers preparing for their tests. They all rode scooters or motorcycles around London many times during the day and night to familiarize themselves with the area. In other countries it just seems to be the norm to ride before you drive a van or car.

    • Robert Glover

      Okay, so YOU can’t handle it in moving traffic. So rather than make it illegal, don’t do it. Let those of us who CAN handle it do so. Thanks.

      • Michael Sibley

        Most Australian City streets are much narrower than the USA, worst is Sydney.The space between the traffic is approx’ 750mm (2’6″), so we tend to only lane split in stationery traffic.

  • Chris_in_Kalifornia

    I commuted 90 miles each way to LAX from my home in Quartz Hill. I gained an hour each afternoon from splitting lanes when possible on my bike, as opposed to driving my car. The only “accident” I ever had was when a driver deliberately swerved towards me when I attempted to pass. How do I know this you ask. I made 3 attempts to pass and each time he swerved to close the gap I would go through. I finally got a completely open lane to his right, that is without a vehicle in the adjoining lane and he still swerved at me as I passed in the other lane. His mirror hit my side and was broken off by the impact. Fortunately I was wearing good protective gear and was not injured. He could easily have killed me. 10 years of lane splitting and that was my only real incident. I have move out of a space behind a slow car only to have it rear ended by the car that was behind me before I moved. You will have a hard time convincing me that I would have been better off not to lane split. By far the majority of accidents I’ve seen on the 405 freeway were rear enders. I would have been “smooshed” had I stayed in that lane.

    • Chris_in_Kalifornia

      BTW, I did 5 of those years on a 2004 Suzuki 650 Vstrom. It had 87,000 miles on it when I sold it and it had only one minor failure. The speedometer sensing ring disintegrated. Not a common failure on any bike. Minor mods included going to pure street tires, changing the countershaft sprocket from the stock 15 to a 17, and lowering the suspension 1 inch front and rear. Much better for me and my 29″ inseam. I would not buy one of the new ones, or so I think, I loved the 5.8 gallon gas tank. I could fill up, ride to work and if something should happen like an earthquake that closed the freeway on my route home I’d still have enough range to go the long way around in either direction.

      • Jai S.

        That reliability is great to hear. I just bought “one of the new ones” last April and I’m almost at 11K with no issues to speak of.

        As far as mileage per tank, I fill up at 230-260 miles, and have never put in more than 4.7 gallons in the 5.3 tank. I’ve also never gotten less than 50 MPG.

        What did you replace the Strom with?

        • Chris_in_Kalifornia

          Heh, I got bit by the “I used to have a perfect bike” syndrome and bought a very used and neglected Honda CB700SC Nighthawk. I never could get it to run right. I have errands I have to run that require a car so I bought a 99 Mustang, V6, 5 speed. Nice little car. Ok, but I pine for a bike. If I could find an old style but newer Vstrom I’d try to buy it. But very few come on the market. Those what has, keeps, I think. :-)

          • Jai S.

            Cool. Let me know if you want to try out the new Strom. I’m in Orange County, so it would be a little bit of a ride.

  • Chris Cope

    I live in the UK and lane split all the time. It’s just more efficient for everyone concerned. I really struggle to understand opposition to it. I mean, I am genuinely baffled. I am particularly confused by the AMA’s establishing a review so it can determine its position. They’re willing to take a stand on idiot things, like opposition to helmet laws and support of loud pipes, but they can’t make a decision on a practice that is, in fact, incredibly beneficial to motorcyclists and would quite possibly encourage more commuters to use bikes?? This to me shows that they are a completely irrelevant organisation.

    • Vrooom

      Opposition, at least here in the states, seems to be based on drivers feeling like they are in competition with other cars in traffic. The riders that I know who oppose lane splitting generally take the perspective that it’s annoying being “passed”, and scares cars.

      • Chris_in_Kalifornia

        Oh yeah, the competition is fierce. I drove a ford escort, zx2 for awhile and I was pretty good at getting through traffic with it. It’s small, quick, and has a nice 4 cyl DOHC 4 valve engine that revs nicely. Not a big power but fun. 5 speed made it even more fun. Passed a Ferrari on the 405 going home one day. Rolled my window down so I could listen to the V12. Ferraris are WIDE!!!, he had a terrible time getting through traffic. So I was able to pass him time and again. Every time he apparently got a little hotter under the collar. Finally getting north about Van Nuys he got a 1/4 mile of clear space and took off. Man that sounded sweet! I still caught up with him again before the 5/14 split as traffic had closed in again. No of course I didn’t goad him… I’d never do that. No way, huh uh. Not me… Of course I did. ROFLMAO

    • Mark Vizcarra

      It’s a me first type of mentality here in the US. People in cars get very angry cause you cut in line

      • Chris_in_Kalifornia

        We didn’t cut in line. At least some of us, we never got in line in the first place.

      • toumanbeg

        That is because they are stooooopid! The law requires that they slow down and allow anyone with their signal on to get in front of them. It is IMPOSSIBLE to be cut off.

    • Guest

      Actually, you’ve got it backwards – the AMA is for helmets and against loud pipes.

      • Chris_in_Kalifornia

        How do you tell a happy motorcyclist? By the bugs in his teeth.

        BTW, that looks exactly like my helmet.

    • Michael Jordan

      Actually, you’ve got it backwards – the AMA is FOR helmets and AGAINST loud pipes.

      • KillerNoms

        No Michael, you have it backwards. The AMA strongly advocates helmet usage for all riders, but opposes helmet laws for adult riders. Most states allow adults to choose.

        And the AMA opposes loud pipes laws, because most of those unfairly impose noise restrictions on motorcycles while ignoring the noise levels of other vehicles. They support noise restrictions that do not discriminate by vehicle type. Those are rarely proposed, however.

    • Chris_in_Kalifornia

      It’s jealousy on the part of cagers. They are jealous of our freedom and are afraid to try biking themselves so they try to stop us out of spite.

      • LS650

        Jealousy is exactly what it is.

      • davidhoffman

        It is the irresponsible ones, who do it at highway speeds, that get us annoyed. In dense traffic, with everything from mini-cars to 18-wheel trucks, running at 70+ mph on I-75, it can be startling to have motorcycles come between lanes of traffic at 90+ mph. I have learned from the educational material presented by various motorcycle groups in the State of Georgia, the Georgia State Patrol, and the military about actively looking for bikers in areas where you get the “I did not see it” answer after the collision, sharing the road, and keeping a safe distance from bikers. I am much better at doing those things now then I used to be. Bikers need to understand that it may only take a relatively small movement of the steering wheel caused by a startle response to put them in collision with an automobile. Splitting lanes at 90+ mph in heavy mixed traffic is not always wise. I am not jealous of you. I have friends and coworkers who ride. I never would think of blocking bikers, as that is pointless and endangers both of us. But some of the lane splitting I have experienced as a car driver on I-75 has not been wise.

  • Otto Maddox

    As much as I hate living in California with all the laws against ANYTHING fun or cool I am always amazed when I ride in other states and lane splitting isn’t allowed.
    It’s one cool thing California hasn’t banned. Yet. I am concerned this study will put an end to lane splitting in California. I think the main reason it’s still legal is the CHP are proponents of it. If we lose their support we’re done for.

    • Mike from Az

      One reason I can see why, is that in CA, traffic is horrible. In AZ for instance, though traffic can back up, it isn’t as bad in CA or other highly congested areas. And with MC’s allowed in the HOV lanes in AZ at all times, traffic moves pretty well. There is a freeway though, that i refuse to ride on with or without traffic.

      • Otto Maddox

        CA isn’t the only place with horrible traffic though. Seattle, Boston, Atlanta, New York City, Hawaii (Oahu specifically).. are places I’ve sat in traffic and wished you could lane split.

        Bikes are allowed in ALL HOV LANES in ALL states. It’s a federal law.

      • Chris_in_Kalifornia

        What freeway is that? Middle of Phoenix would be my guess.

  • Phaedrus

    “…no empirical data exists on which to base an educated opinion”

    Interesting quote considering that in MANY countries of the world, including developed ones, it is legal or tolerated.
    Lane splitting would transform the motorcycle industry in the USA from a recreational hobby into mainstream transportation. It’d cut commuting time significantly and propel sales of bikes likes never before.

  • Robert Glover

    I look forward to the report. It sounds like it will be done scientifically, and won’t have a political agenda (e.g. to come up with a way to ban it). Then hopefully we can get it legalized in other states. It’s high time it was allowed nationwide.

    • Paul Sanders

      agreed, and forget about the fact that it reduces congestion. that is just a bonus. it will save lives. getting killed do to being rear ended is extremely lower in states that allow splitting/filtering.

  • LS650

    Lane splitting is a great idea – if the local cagers know to expect it. Where I live (British Columbia) it is almost suicidal, as car drivers here are simply too unaware (I am being charitable) for lane splitting to be safe.

    Even if it were legal here, it wouldn’t be safe without a major education campaign, and I just don’t see that happening.

    • davidhoffman

      We have an active safety program at the military installation where I work. One of the campaigns is known as “See Me, Save Me”. It involved many different types of communication media used to get car and truck drivers to spend more time actively looking to see if motorcycles are in the area they are going to be transiting through. There had been several “I did not see him officer, he came out of nowhere.” collisions between cars and motorcycles in the local area. The base commander, the local police, the local MSF, local rider groups, and others participated in getting the message out that these are your friends and fellow citizens who deserve more of your attention than you have been giving them. I have no statistics to show that it made a difference in collision rates, but I know more people were exposed to the concept of actively looking for bikers so as to not collide with them.

      If that type of education would be good enough in Canada I cannot say. But I think there are methods to increase knowledge of the motoring public.

  • Craig Hoffman

    Lived in CA for 16 years, really miss the legal lane splitting. CA has such crippling traffic that it makes it sensible to have legal lane splitting. I can’t imagine being stuck in a 40 mile long California traffic jam and not being able to lane split. It is unbearable in the relative comfort of a car. It would be a form of torture on a motorcycle.

    There is a technique and rhythm to lane splitting. It is kind of beautiful really :)

  • יצחק בּוזוף

    “Splitting” has a negative connotation, I think. Call it “Lane Sharing.” Everyone is taught that sharing is a good thing from childhood, and if you want to see how language and naming a thing changes a debate google “josh sugarman” and “assault weapons.”

  • FreeFrog

    Lanesplitting here in Sacramento, CA is essential during rush hour. I do it every day. Most drivers are courteous, but it’s a very motorcycle-active city, so perhaps that’s why. I know when I lived in the San Francisco area I got much more flak — car doors opening, cars moving to block, cigarettes flicked, etc. If motorcyclists practice “sane” splitting, and motorists learn the law (i.e., it’s legal) we all win.

  • frank

    Here’s some other truth about lane splitting .. Are you, or is
    anybody really naive enough to believe that politicians really care
    about you, or your safety? Really? Newsflash: politicians care about
    their constituents, the people that donate money to them and vote to
    keep them in power. Another news flash: And most of those constituents are driving
    around in cars. And when those same constituents are stuck every work day in traffic
    purgatory as a result of their own transportation choices, and see bikers going by them who are not, they complain to the politicians they elected and control to do something about it.

    If this anti lane splitting idea even remotely seems to be gaining traction,
    motorcyclists better rise up and make a very long, and very loud
    noise…you know, the kind that guys like Sharpton and Jackson make
    every chance they get. Otherwise, don’t complain. Sell your bike, buy a
    Prius, and quietly get in line like everybody else.

  • toumanbeg

    I live in America and lane split all the time. I have been lane splitting for 48 years, although I have only called it that for the last decade or so. I would rather have a ticket then a funeral.

  • Ken Condon

    Good article. We don’t hear much about lane splitting here in Massachusetts. People do it, but it is illegal and you’ll get stopped for doing it. This study may nudge the authorities to consider allowing it. We’ll see.

  • Anthony Castelli

    Very even handed treatment for motorcycle lane splitting. As a motorcyclist it’s just to risky. But lets see what the studies show. I already know what my gut says.

  • David Campbell

    “cleaning and entering the data to be studied”: is this another way of stating they are going to manipulate the data in the direction they want to study to show?

    • Chris_in_Kalifornia

      Probably…

  • Jay F

    To those that appose it, you do realize it is completely legal on the entire PLANET except for 49 States in the US.
    That’s all I’m going to say.

    • Chris_in_Kalifornia

      It’s none of the government’s business anyway. Just like healthcare and drug usage, mandatory seat belts etc ad nauseum. People in the government are incurable buttinskies. Think they know better than we do what is in our own interests. Jerks!

  • Tapioca

    I ride a scooter around the city of San Francisco. The other day I scooted to the front of some traffic at a red light. The driver whose car I got in front of pulled up next to me after the light turned green and screamed at me until we reached the next light, telling me that I needed to “follow the same rules that cars follow.” I realized then how many drivers here are absolutely unaware that lane splitting is permitted. It was aggressive of her to chew me out like that, but what struck me was that she really didn’t know I was following the law correctly. Besides that who yells at a girl on a scooter anyway!!??