Lane-splitting rules will protect motorcyclists and drivers

A motorcyclist rides between the lanes during the afternoon commute on Highway 99.
A motorcyclist rides between the lanes during the afternoon commute on Highway 99. rbenton@sacbee.com

If you want to start a fight between motorists and motorcyclists in California, just mention lane-splitting.

Many drivers who have had cyclists zoom past them mere inches away say it’s one of the scariest hazards on the freeway. But many motorcyclists say that lane-splitting protects them from being rear-ended in heavy traffic.

A new, first-of-its-kind study isn’t likely to settle the argument. And that makes it even more important for the California Highway Patrol to restore some common-sense rules of the road to protect motorists and motorcyclists alike.

As reported Wednesday by The Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak, the yearlong analysis concluded that lane-splitting is no more dangerous than motorcycling in general – if the rider is traveling at or near the same speed as nearby vehicles.

But it is more hazardous when motorcyclists go above the speed limit, or more than 10 mph faster than cars they’re passing. Of course, that’s when riding between the lanes is the biggest advantage for cyclists who don’t want to be stuck in traffic.

The study was commissioned by the Highway Patrol and state Office of Traffic Safety and conducted by UC Berkeley researchers who looked at data collected by 80 law enforcement agencies statewide on collisions involving nearly 8,300 motorcyclists.

Motorcyclists are overrepresented in California traffic deaths. The number of fatalities nearly tripled between 1998 and 2008, but went down in 2009 and 2010. They increased nearly 5 percent, from 415 in 2011 to 435 in 2012, the most recent figures available.

Lane-splitting apparently is becoming more common – 62 percent of motorcyclists say they do so on freeways and other roads, up 7.5 percentage points from last year. California is the only state in the nation that doesn’t ban the maneuver. And any move to regulate lane-splitting runs into a storm of criticism from motorcycle advocates.

Last year, the Highway Patrol issued the first written guidelines, advising cyclists not to go more than 10 mph faster than other traffic and not to lane-split when traffic is moving faster than 30 mph. Because they were only voluntary guidelines, violating them would not lead to a ticket.

Still, someone complained that the CHP had not gone through the proper rule-making process. In response, the CHP ditched the guidelines. It says that since state law is silent on lane-splitting, it doesn’t have the authority to write formal regulations.

Motorcyclists may not like anyone telling them what to do, but it’s their safety at stake. If drivers don’t see them and hit them, they may only lose a side mirror. Cyclists, however, could be seriously injured.

Freeways should be as safe as possible for everyone. If having guidelines helps do that, it defies logic not to have them.

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