Lane splitting: The other thing California legalized

Elijah De Castro,

Motorcyclist can now legally ride in between lanes

Many Californians are caught up in the recent legalization of marijuana, but another controversial topic came to the forefront recently: lane splitting. Also known as lane filtering, it is when motorcycles ride in between lanes of traffic.

Motorcyclists lane split everyday. All drivers have seen motorcycles riding in between lanes during traffic, it is essential in motorcycle riding. Lane splitting helps with traffic congestion, increases rider safety and helps motorcyclists avoid overheating. It also gives an escape route to avoid rear ending. Simply, motorcyclists lane split to get places faster and it’s just one of the benefits of riding a motorcycle.

Last year in 2017, lane splitting in California was officially legalized, which was big news for motorcyclists. Splitting lanes wasn’t technically illegal previously, but is now formally recognized within the law. California was the first state in the country to formally recognize and make it legal.

Before the new law was passed, lane splitting in California was a gray or “silent” area. It wasn’t explicitly prohibited but, similar to marijuana, lane splitting was one of those popular issues that needed to be addressed legally.

“My personal view, not of the other members is that the new law makes [lane splitting] a little more safe,” said Jim Donahoe, a member of the Hayward Motorcycle Club. “Also, it alerts other motorists that it is indeed a legal maneuver. My view is that it is still not safe and I don’t do it. Other members use lane sharing and support it.” Originally founded in 1946, the Hayward Motorcycle Club is known for flat track racing at the Hayward Speedway and has about 50 members.

Issues involving lane splitting surfaced in 2013, when the California Highway Patrol published guidelines on how motorcyclists should lane split. These guidelines were also printed in the 2014 DMV Motorcycle Handbook. However, a complaint was filed with the Office of Administrative Law claiming that these were underground regulations. They were removed shortly after according to The Mercury News.

On Aug. 19, 2016, after a unanimous 69-0 vote by the state assembly, California governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 51 which made it legal for motorcyclists to lane split. The bill was proposed by assemblymember Bill Quirk — whose district office is in Hayward — and authorized the California Highway Patrol to develop guidelines to ensure lane-splitting is done in a safe and proper manner. Starting Jan. 1, the bill took effect in the law and defined lane splitting as driving a motorcycle between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane.

“Safety, Safety, Safety,” was the biggest reason Quirk told The Pioneer that brought this issue to attention. “The key to safe lane splitting is to do it no faster than 50 mph. Speed and experience. Those who lane split at speeds like 70+ mph can make wrong move and end very badly.” He also mentioned that having motorcyclists in between lanes also significantly helps to avoid rear ending.

In Quirk’s letter for the signature request of AB 51, he stated that the removal of the guidelines in 2014 left a huge gap in regards to safety. Some of the reasons motorcyclists lane split mentioned: no airbags, cooling mechanisms, no cages and lower visibility.

The Bay Area Riders Forum, Motorcycle Industry Council, City Bike, Automobile Club of Southern California and other groups also sent letters to the governor in support of AB 51. After the signing of the bill, the CHP department was required to develop guidelines and consult with other agencies and organizations with an interest in road safety. These include but are not limited to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Transportation and the Office of Public Safety.

CHP issued guidelines through their California Motorcycle Safety Program in 2017 that instructed motorcyclists to travel no more than 10 miles per hour faster than other traffic and not to lane split when traffic flow is at 30 mph or faster. The guidelines also includes a list of when not to split, disclaimers and messages to other motorists.

In a 2013 study led by Dr. Tamir Rice of UC Berkeley, Safe Transportation Research & Education Center (SafeTrec), “Motorcycle Lane-Splitting and Safety in California,” lane-splitting increases rider safety. The results show that riders are significantly less likely to be rear ended in heavy traffic when they are splitting through lanes.

The study also states that lane splitting riders are less likely to suffer head, torso, extremity and fatal injury. A heavy emphasis is mentioned on the speed at which motorcyclists lane split. “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,” the study said.

The study was mentioned in Quirk’s letter to the governor and was a big proponent to the argument. Quirk said during his interview with The Pioneer that initially the CHP preferred to see more than just one study, so a follow up study was done in 2015 also by UC Berkeley SafeTrec.

When asked whether there was any opposition in trying to pass the bill, Quirk said that although some individuals may have opposed lane splitting, no actual organized group opposed the legalization. “As soon as study was shown that it was safer to have motorcyclist lane split, everyone was on board.” Having motorcyclists in between lanes significantly helps to avoid rear ending.

Since the start of last year Assembly Bill 51 has defined lane splitting and gave CHP the authority to issue guidelines on safe lane splitting. More people on the road should now be more aware of motorcycles passing in between lanes and increase road safety. Without lane splitting motorcyclists are more likely to be rear ended, to overheat and add to traffic congestion. As long as it is done properly according the guidelines, splitting lanes should remain safe and legal.