Back-Seat Driver

California set to slow lane-splitting motorcyclists

A motorcyclist rides between the lanes during the afternoon commute on southbound Highway 99 in Sacramento. Assembly Bill 51 would put limits on the practice, which is not covered in the California Vehicle Code.
A motorcyclist rides between the lanes during the afternoon commute on southbound Highway 99 in Sacramento. Assembly Bill 51 would put limits on the practice, which is not covered in the California Vehicle Code. Sacramento Bee file

California is a motorcyclist mecca. It has the sunny weather. It offers up picturesque mountain and coastal roads. But here’s what really sets it apart: It’s the only state that allows motorcycle riders to cut freely between other cars on crowded roads and freeways.

That controversial maneuver, known on the street as lane-splitting, is not addressed in the state Vehicle Code. As a result, the California Highway Patrol has taken the stance that it is legal.

That may be about to change. Prompted by safety concerns, the Assembly last week approved a bill that would formally legalize lane-splitting, but would place restrictions on when and how cyclists can do it.

The bill, AB 51, limits motorcyclists to 15 miles per hour faster than the cars they are passing. It also prohibits motorcyclists from lane-splitting at speeds above 50 miles per hour.

That means, for instance, if freeway traffic slows to 35 miles per hour, motorcyclists can cut between cars at up to 50 miles per hour. But anytime freeway traffic is going 50 miles per hour or faster, motorcyclists legally would be banned from lane-splitting.

The bill, currently in the Senate for debate, is prompting mixed reactions from motorcyclists and drivers.

Bill co-author Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, a science-based guy with a Ph.D. in astrophysics, said his goal is safety.

Lane-splitting has become habit in California, he said. About 80 percent of motorcyclists report that they lane-split. It will continue to happen, in part because it’s hard for the CHP to chase down illegal motorcyclists who don’t want to be caught. The CHP hasn’t taken a stance on the bill, but has shown it, too, wants to curtail lane-splitting excesses.

Quirk and his co-authors say the bill will help tamp down on the most extreme splitting, but still give motorcyclists the opportunity to avoid getting rear-ended in tight traffic.

“I think we came to a reasonable compromise about what would be safe,” Quirk said.

The bill isn’t popular with car drivers who complain lane-splitting cyclists startle them by coming seemingly out of nowhere, sometimes flying by at high speed, just inches from cars. If an unsuspecting driver makes a lane change at the wrong moment –bam!

“Motorcycle driving in and of itself is very dangerous,” says Tom Freeman, a San Diego commuter who founded StopLaneSplitting.com. Freeman wants the Legislature to ban lane-splitting entirely. “Throw in distracted driving. Lane-splitting adds to this predicament. It is dangerous not just to motorcyclist, but to other drivers.”

Quirk, however, is basing his proposed law on a recent UC Berkeley study that found lane-splitting injuries are notably reduced when the speed differential between cars and cyclists is less than 15 mph, and if traffic is flowing at less than 50 mph. The motorcycle speed differential appears to be more important in determining the likelihood of rider injury, according to the study.

Motorcyclists seem to understand that the pressure is on to do something to curtail the worst lane-splitting.

The American Motorcyclist Association officially opposes the bill, but not adamantly. Nick Haris of Placerville, the Western states representative for the AMA, said he plans to meet with Quirk next week to request the bill be amended to allow lane-splitting in some instances at speeds greater than 50 miles per hour.

Quirk said this week he likes his 50-mph maximum, but said, “I’m always willing to listen.”

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