T.J. Walter commutes from Marina Del Rey to Beverly Hills every day. It takes him around 50 minutes in his car. On his motorcycle, a 2005 GSXR 1000, it takes 25 minutes.
That's because on his motorcycle he engages in “lane splitting,” the practice of driving past traffic in the space between two lanes. He also employs “filtering,” riding ahead of waiting cars at a stoplight, a close cousin of lane splitting.
A law officially recognizing lane splitting as legal passed the California State Assembly last month, and appears to be on its way to passage by the Senate. Lane splitting is technically already legal in California, simply because there is no law prohibiting it. It is illegal in all 49 other states, but legal in Europe and Asia.
In law-clogged America, it makes sense that such a brazen, dangerous-looking act would be against the law. Motorcyclists themselves find it terrifying.
“The first time I did it I was just like, ‘Oh my God this is crazy,” says Walter. “In California, it’s like the Wild West. It’s self-regulating; you’re only limited by the risks you’re willing to take.”
The nanny-like California government passed the bill in part because regulating “Wild West”-type freedoms is exactly what they do best. They deserve credit, however, for not outlawing the practice entirely. They were smart and clear-eyed enough to accept the counterintuitive truth that lane splitting is actually safer for motorcyclists than not lane splitting.
Says the notoriously sober American Motorcycle Association, “Perhaps one of the most dangerous situations for any on-highway motorcyclist is being caught in congested traffic, where stop-and-go vehicles, distracted and inattentive vehicle operators, and environmental conditions pose an increased risk of physical contact with another vehicle or hazard…Even minor contact under such conditions can be disastrous for motorcyclists.”
Even the U.S. Department of Transportation states that lane splitting can “provide an escape route for motorcyclists who would otherwise be trapped or struck from behind.” Indeed, California, the only state to allow the practice, has significantly fewer motorcyclist fatalities from rear-endings than other states.
“You end up developing a sort of sense,” says Walter. “You learn to reduce your TED” — time exposed to danger.
Another reason why motorcyclists lane split is because of heat. “In the Southwest you have to lane split or filter, because if you’re just sitting there it’s so hot you’re probably gonna die,” says Walter. He says that lane splitting was actually born out of this necessity. Early two stroke motorcycles could not sit idle without overheating, so motorcyclists had to keep moving.
The law in question, Assembly Bill 51, would limit lane splitters to no more than 15 miles per hour faster than other traffic and cap their speed at 50 mph. These specific limits probably helped the bill pass through the Assembly, as a similar 2013 bill died because it was too vague.
While motorcyclists virtually all support lane splitting, that does not mean they all support the law. “I think it will limit it. It’s hard to make a law for it, and if they do it will nearly impossible to enforce,” says Walter. “I feel like we don't need any more laws.”
Others, like Ivan Cremer, who also commutes to work on his motorcycle, says the law probably won't have much of an effect on him. In his certification course, which he took in order to get a motorcycling license, he was told that lane splitting at more than 10 mph faster than traffic would constitute reckless driving. He already only lane splits at low speeds.
“I don’t think it’s going to make much difference, because you’re never allowed to go higher than the speed limit anyway,” says Cremer. “The only thing it might change is lane splitting at high speeds, which is a big risk.”
Others see the proposed law in a different light, as a recognition that rules should be different for different vehicles, and as a way of setting the expectations of other drivers.
“The rules of the road were based on the rules of the sea; every vessel has its own designation and set of rules,” says Andres Faucher, who rides a BMW R1200 GS Adventure. “Those rules let you know what to expect from it. They provide clarity so that everyone understands what latitude they have in navigating common surfaces. Clarifying those rules is good because it lets everyone know that motorcycles have different rules, but they are still rules.”
Overall, making motorcycling more appealing may be a good thing for everyone. A recent study found that increasing the percentage of motorcycles to 10 percent of all traffic (they currently make up about 1 percent) would reduce congestion for everyone, cars included, by 63 percent.
“It's one less car on the road,” says Walter. “I’m going through spaces that exist anyway.”
Indeed, we have all this open pavement and it need not be our weakness when it could be our strength.
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