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Common Tread

Motorcycle lane splitting is now legal in California

Aug 19, 2016

For the first time, lane splitting through stopped or slower traffic on a motorcycle is explicitly legal in the largest state of the United States. Now, as usual, the devil is in the details.

Gov. Jerry Brown today signed Assembly Bill 51, which had earlier been passed by the State Assembly by a vote of 74-0 and in the State Senate by 38-0.

Lane splitting has long been allowed in California, though it is prohibited in the other states. Because it was never codified, however, each law enforcement officer might have a different opinion of what was safe and legal behavior. Unfortunately, AB 51 does not completely resolve that issue.

The original bill set guidelines for maximum speed and maximum speed differentials for motorcycles filtering through slower traffic. But because of differing opinions over those standards, they were later deleted. The final version of the law directs the California Highway Patrol to develop “educational guidelines” for lane splitting, in consultation with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Transportation, the Office of Traffic Safety and “a motorcycle organization focused on motorcyclist safety.”

While those “educational guidelines” won’t have the same force as explicit standards written into law would have, they will at least provide clear rules for riders to follow.

If I don’t live in California, why does it matter?

Though lane splitting is common practice in most of the world, attempts to pass lane splitting laws in states other than California have mostly been unsuccessful. If the most populous state in the country can make it work and show the benefits in terms of reduced congestion, that’s the best ammunition for those trying to get similar laws passed elsewhere.

California often goes its own way. Just look at emissions laws and consumer protection laws as examples. Often, however, what begins in California is later adopted elsewhere. This could be an example that is positive for riders.

And now, a personal request

By internet standards, RevZilla has the most thoughtful and considerate audience I’ve found yet in the motoverse. Still, certain topics tend to stir up acrimonious exchanges and lane splitting is one of them.

If you are among the small minority of riders warming up the keyboard to declare that lane splitting is always unsafe, done only by idiots and should be banned everywhere, please do me a personal favor and consider these points first:

  • The law allows lane splitting. It does not require it. If you feel it is unsafe or you are uncomfortable doing it, you don’t have to.
  • If you’ve never done any lane splitting yourself, think about how your opinions of it will be received by those of us who have done it without incident for many years and miles. It’s the same as a person who has never ridden a motorcycle telling you that he personally believes riding a motorcycle is unsafe and not worth the risk and therefore they should be banned, including yours. (Here’s further reading on the topic of risk perception.) Considering that 7 percent of U.S. households own motorcycles, it's dangerous for us to encourage the idea of banning practices we don’t personally like, because we are not the majority that will decide what’s banned.

If you consider those points and still want to call all of us who lane split idiots, I’ll still let you do it, because that’s the way RevZilla rolls.