Live outside the Golden State, and you realize that California is a special place, in virtually every sense of the word. As a sixth-generation inhabitant of the world’s ninth largest economy, regular readers of A&R will already have made note that I am somewhat militant about California, and one of the many reasons for this is the state’s pro-motorcycle culture.
Land of perpetual sunshine, abundant coastal and mountain roads, and the epicenter of the American motorcycle industry, California has another thing going for motorcyclists as well: you can lane-split here. You motorcyclists in the other 49 states of the Union don’t understand what you are missing with this simple act, and if there was one single law that the AMA/MIC should be pushing to pass in every state in order to help swell the ranks of motorcyclists on the road, it would be laws allowing lane-splitting (also known as lane-sharing, or lane-filtering).
What is driving in a safe and prudent manner though? A highly subjective and poorly defined bit of phrasing, the CHP and state legislature have done themselves a disservice in waiting so long to define exactly how they interpret this provision. After all, there is no provision in the CVC that outlaws steering a car with one’s feet, though one would think the California Highway Patrol (CHP) would certainly, and rightfully, ticket you back to the stone age for such an action.
Lane-splitting in California is no different, with no working definition on what was “safe and prudent” on a motorcycle, common practice and adoption have taken hold of the two-wheeled art of getting through traffic congestion. Thought originally to be a concession to the air-cooled machines of the time, lane-splitting catered well to motorcycle riders whose machines would quickly overheat while sitting in traffic.
Also a relic of a time when highway congestion of was considerably less of an issue than its current metropolitan pandemic, for lack of a better reason, California’s pro lane-splitting stance persists because the state has waited too long to act otherwise, and we are that much better for it.
However, what constitutes “safe and prudent” lane-splitting has always been a mystery box definition for motorcyclists, and when left to the subjective opinion of a CHP officer, the application of “the rules” can be varied, at best.
For this author, it has only been a few months since the last time a motorcycle-mounted CHP officer pulled me over for “illegally lane-splitting” on a California highway. A thirty-minute road-side conversation on the basic tenets of jurisprudence, some interesting interpretations of quoted law, a few complete fabrications on the sections of the CVC, and I left sans citation and deeply worried for the next motorcyclist who would get this Harley-rider’s ire — at least my law degree wasn’t going completely to waste, as my mother fears.
My encounter, like those of many others, however only highlights the need for a clearer explanation on the rules of the road. Thankfully the CHiPs abide, and have outlined guidelines for safe lane-splitting on a motorcycle. Before I publish the California Highway Patrol’s guidelines below, it is important to note that these notes are not law. The only relevant law, as far as a court is concerned, is the “safe and prudent manner” catchall in the CVC.
So, think of these guidelines as just that, a guide on how not to getting the stink-eye from Johnny Law. Better yet, think of these guidelines as a best-practices list on how to navigate the highways and city streets of California, but also remember to always use your best judgment, and ride defensively.
The California Highway Patrol’s Guidelines to Lane-Splitting:
Motorcyclists who are competent enough riders to lane split, should follow these general guidelines if choosing to lane split:
1) Travel at a speed that is no more than 10 MPH faster than other traffic – danger increases at higher speed differentials.
- A speed differential of 10 miles per hour or less allows an alert, competent rider enough time to identify and react to most dangerous situations that can occur.
- The greater the speed differential, the less time a rider has to identify and react to a hazard.
2) It is not advisable to lane split when traffic flow is at 30 mph or faster — danger increases as overall speed increases.
- At just 20 mph, in the 1 or 2 seconds it takes a rider to identify a hazard, that rider will travel approximately 30 to 60 feet before even starting to take evasive action. Actual reaction (braking or swerving) will take additional time and distance.
- Braking and stopping distance varies greatly based on a multitude of factors (rider, machine and environment).
- As speed increases, crash severity increases.
3) Typically, it is safer to split between the #1 and #2 lanes than between other lanes.
- Other road users are more accustomed to motorcycles splitting between the #1 and #2 (furthest left) lanes.
- Avoid splitting in lanes near freeway on-ramps and exits.
- Avoid splitting lanes when another motorcycle rider is splitting between other nearby lanes as cars may make additional room for one rider and accidentally reduce space for another.
4) Consider the total environment in which you are splitting, including the width of the lanes, size of surrounding vehicles, as well as roadway, weather, and lighting conditions.
- Some lanes are narrower than others, leaving little room to pass safely. If you can’t fit, don’t split.
- Some vehicles are wider than others — it is not advisable to split near wide trucks. If you can’t fit, don’t split.
- Know the limitations of your motorcycle — wide bars, fairing and bags require more space between vehicles. If you can’t fit, don’t split.
- Avoid splitting on unfamiliar roads to avoid surprises such as poor road surfaces.
- Seams in the pavement or concrete between lanes can be hazardous if they are wide or uneven.
- Poor visibility, due to darkness or weather conditions, makes it difficult for riders to see road hazards and makes it more difficult for drivers to see you.
- Help drivers see you by wearing brightly colored protective gear and using high beams during daylight.
5) Be alert and anticipate possible movements by other road users.
- Be very aware of what the cars around you are doing. If a space, or gap, opens up next to your lane, be prepared react accordingly.
- Always be prepared to take evasive action if a vehicle changes lanes.
- Account for inattentive or distracted drivers.
- Riders should not weave back and forth between lanes or ride on top of the line.
- Riders should avoid lingering in blind spots.
- Never ride while impaired by drugs, alcohol or fatigue.
- Constantly scan for changing conditions.
The Four R’s or “Be-Attitudes” of Lane Splitting:
Be Reasonable, be Responsible, be Respectful, be aware of all Roadway and traffic conditions.
- Be Reasonable means not more than 10 MPH faster than traffic flow and not over 39 MPH.
- Be Responsible for your own safety and decisions.
- Don’t put yourself in dangerous positions.
- If you can’t fit, don’t split.
- Be Respectful — sharing the road goes both ways.
- Don’t rely on loud pipes to keep you safe, loud pipes often startle people and poison the attitude of car drivers toward motorcyclists.
- Other vehicles are not required to make space for motorcycles to lane split.
- Be aware Roadways and traffic can be hazardous.
- uneven pavement
- wide trucks
- distracted drivers
- weather conditions
These general guidelines are not guaranteed to keep you safe.
Lane splitting should not be performed by inexperienced riders. These guidelines assume a high level of riding competency and experience.
The recommendations contained here are only general guidelines and cannot cover all possible combinations of situations and variables.
Personal Safety: Every rider has ultimate responsibility for his or her own decision making and safety. Riders must be conscious of reducing crash risk at all times. California law requires all motorcycle riders and passengers wear a helmet that complies with the DOT FMVSS 218 standard.
Risk of getting a ticket: Motorcyclists who lane split are not relieved of the responsibility to obey all existing traffic laws. With respect to possible law enforcement action, keep in mind that it will be up to the discretion of the Law Enforcement Officer to determine if riding behavior while lane splitting is or was safe and prudent.
When is it NOT OK to split?
You should NOT lane split:
- If you can’t fit.
- At a toll booth.
- If traffic is moving too fast or unpredictably.
- If dangerous road conditions exist — examples include water or grit on the road, slippery road markings, road construction, uneven pavement, metal grates, etc.
- If you cannot clearly see a way out of the space you’re going into (for example, if a van or SUV is blocking your view).
- Between trucks, buses, RVs, and other wide vehicles.
- Around or through curves.
- If you are not fully alert and aware of your surroundings.
- If you are unable to react to changing conditions instantaneously.
- If you don’t feel comfortable with the situation.
Messages for Other Vehicle Drivers
1) Lane splitting by motorcycles is not illegal in California when done in a safe and prudent manner.
2) Motorists should not take it upon themselves to discourage motorcyclists from lane splitting.
3) Intentionally blocking or impeding a motorcyclist in a way that could cause harm to the rider is illegal (CVC 22400).
4) Opening a vehicle door to impede a motorcycle is illegal (CVC 22517).
5) Never drive while distracted.
6) You can help keep motorcyclists and all road users safe by:
- Checking mirrors and blind spots, especially before changing lanes or turning
- Signaling your intentions before changing lanes or merging with traffic
- Allowing more following distance, three or four seconds, when behind a motorcycle so the motorcyclist has enough time to maneuver or stop in an emergency