Lane splitting - the act of riding between stopped or crawling lanes of traffic - was already in precarious position. While illegal almost everywhere else in the United States, in California, motorcyclists have been able to lane split for the past few decades, even though its permissibility is a bit of a gray area. Last week, the Motorcycle Lane Splitting Guidelines were removed from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) handbook and website, making the issue a whole lot more gray.
The problem is that lane splitting is neither explicitly legal nor illegal. More precisely, there is no specific law banning it, while also no law specifically outlining it as within bounds. In the past few years, we’ve seen improvements in the general acceptance of the behavior. Even the electronic highway signs sometimes display "Share the road, watch out for motorcyclists" messages.
Lane splitting has been around for decades, and was initially allowed to keep bikes, with air-cooled engines, from overheating in traffic in our warm climate. Newer motorcycles obviously don’t need such provisions, though many of us who enjoy the act do so not only to save time, but also to protect ourselves from rear-end collisions in stopped or stop-and-go traffic.
Lane splitting guidelines
- Travel no more than 10 mph faster than other traffic
- It is not advisable to lane split when traffic is moving faster than 30 mph
- It is usually best to split between lanes one and two
- Think about the environment you’re splitting in, including the width of the lanes, other vehicles, your motorcycle, and the quality of the roadway, weather, and lighting
- Be alert and anticipate the movements of cars around you
- Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations
- If you can’t fit, don’t split
The Motorcycle Lane Splitting Guidelines were published as a way to help both motorcyclists and drivers understand what lane splitting is and how to do it safely. They were included in both the CHP website and handbook, and generally accepted as best practices. The guidelines have also been removed from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and Office of Traffic Safety websites, as well.
So why were they removed?
The guidelines were meant to help everyone understand the best way to engage in lane splitting as safely as possible, but were not laws. The CHP says that distinction led to a great deal of confusion about taking enforcement action against people who were lane splitting unsafely. The CHP decided the guidelines were misleading.
So, if nothing has actually changed, why do we care?
Besides the fact that the government has chosen to withhold safety information from the public, this step just further confuses the stance on lane splitting. Many of us in California who lane split are fairly well aware of the guidelines and what is suggested, but with that information gone, riders have no official guidance on exactly what practices are acceptable and which are not.
The right to lane split is one of the reasons guys like me encourage others to ride with respect for everyone else on the road. Since lane splitting sits in such a gray area, we need to continue to make the case for it as beneficial for the community and not abuse the right, to avoid having it taken away. Even most of the news reporting on the issue has included quotes from people who think lane splitting should be abolished or who still believe lane splitters are “cutting in line.” Many people shared stories of minor accidents where motorcyclists refused to stop. Incidents like that give all of us a terrible reputation.
I don't live in California, so why should I care?
As nearly the only place in the United States where lane splitting is permitted, California is the test case. Lots of motorcyclists elsewhere would love to have the option. If you don't like lane splitting, you can always choose not to do it. But it's a huge advantage in personal mobility for riders in much of the world.
If lane splitting disappears in California, that makes it much less likely that it will become legally accepted anywhere else in the country.