Is Lane Splitting Illegal in California?

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Nearly everyone drives in California. Lanes of traffic often move at a snail’s pace, except for the motorcycles driving between the cars. Lane sharing, filtering, or lane splitting laws give California motorcycle drivers the right to slide between traffic lanes on freeways and other roads.

In fact, a recent survey shows that 71.4% of motorcycle drivers lane split on roads other than freeways. Among frequent riders, those who ride daily, 36.5% engage in lane splitting on the freeway. On the other hand, only 60.7% of vehicle drivers responding knew lane splitting for motorcycles on the freeway was legal in California.

When Did Lane Splitting Become Legal?

California has never prohibited the practice. In 2016, bill AB 51 clearly defined lane splitting. The definition: “driving a motorcycle … that has two wheels in contact with the ground, between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane, including on both divided and undivided streets, roads, or highways.” The new definition did nothing to change the law. It did, however, allow the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to develop safety guidelines and instructions around the practice.

CHP created new guidelines with the Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Transportation, Office of Traffic Safety, and several motorcycle safety organizations. The lane splitting safety tips made the news in September 2018.

The Safety Disclaimer

The list of safety tips begins with a disclaimer about how “Lane splitting can be dangerous and extreme caution should be exercised. It should not be performed by inexperienced riders.” Tips for motorcyclists and other vehicle drivers encourage motorists to work together for the safety of all. Other vehicle drivers read how lane splitting is legal, whereas intentionally blocking lane splitters is illegal.

The History of Lane Splitting in California

Californians and lane splitting have a history back to the 1960s. As traffic got worse, motorcyclists started lane splitting to prevent their motorcycles from overheating. Traffic congestion ultimately reduced and the riders got where they were going sooner.

The Question of Safety

Although motorcycles do a lot of lane splitting, very few researchers study the practice. The lack of data makes lawmaking decisions more difficult. The data that does exist shows lane splitting in slower traffic to be relatively safe. The strategy appears sound when the other vehicles move at less than 50 mph and the motorcycles do not exceed 65 mph. Unfortunately, precise data collection is difficult to find. Information about both lane-splitting and non-lane-splitting riding by a specific identifiable sample of motorcyclists would need a comparison. This means collecting pre-crash information from lane splitters and non-lane splitters to see if one group crashes more often than the other.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stats show California sits in the middle for motorcyclist fatalities – 100,000 registered motorcycles, as compared to the rest of the country.

What Motorcycle Riders Say

Motorcycle riders engage in lane splitting for both increased safety and speed.

  • They weave through the traffic quickly, which they suggest improves commute times for everyone. Global studies back up their claims.
  • Those critical of lane splitting use safety as an explanation, yet motorcyclists say they feel safer. The possibility of rear-end accidents is a big concern.
  • Motorcycles overheat if they remain stationary for extended periods.
  • Drivers’ perceptions skew when they clearly recall reckless lane splits at high speed.

What the Drivers of Other Vehicles Say

About two-thirds of drivers disapprove of lane splitting. Half of those believe it is unsafe. They also say they fear a crash, find it startles them, say motorcyclists go too fast, believe it to be inherently unfair or it must be illegal.

Misunderstandings around lane splitting can lead to road rage for both the motorcyclists and the drivers of the other vehicles. Greater attention to the safety guidelines, and an understanding that this practice is legal, helps everyone have a more peaceful commute.