Foon Rhee

Lane-splitting bill barely moves the needle

Watch lane splitting from a motorcyclist’s point of view

Brian O'Hearn, a motorcyclist rider for 30 years, says he cuts between cars in a maneuver called "lane splitting" on streets and highways because it puts him ahead of traffic and feels "empowering." Care in making the move is essential, though, an
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Brian O'Hearn, a motorcyclist rider for 30 years, says he cuts between cars in a maneuver called "lane splitting" on streets and highways because it puts him ahead of traffic and feels "empowering." Care in making the move is essential, though, an

When it comes to the California freeway maneuver known as lane splitting, I’m on the same page as Assemblyman Bill Quirk.

He doesn’t want to outlaw motorcycles from going in between vehicles. He only wants to make our highways safer for motorists and motorcyclists alike.

But it’s been like pulling teeth for him to get some common-sense rules of the road.

Quirk, a Hayward Democrat, finally won legislative approval for a bill this session, and it landed on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk last Wednesday. But the measure – which only calls for educational guidelines, maybe – is a shell of his original proposal. That’s too bad.

It would drive me crazy, but Quirk seems OK with it. “I’m just happy to get something with consensus,” he told me. “It’s a good step in the right direction.”

Quirk’s initial version of Assembly Bill 51 – which passed the Assembly in May 2015 but stalled in the Senate – would have officially authorized lane splitting, but only when motorcyclists go no more than 50 mph and no more than 15 mph faster than the cars they’re passing.

It seemed sensible to me.

It followed the science from a first-of-its-kind study, commissioned by the California Highway Patrol and the Office of Traffic Safety and conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley. It concluded that lane splitting is no more risky than motorcycling in general – as long as the rider is traveling close to the same speed as surrounding vehicles. But when motorcyclists go more than 15 mph faster than cars they’re passing or go more than 50 mph, lane splitting is more dangerous.

In 2013, the CHP issued voluntary guidelines, advising motorcyclists not to go 10 mph faster than other traffic and not to lane split when traffic is moving faster than 30 mph.

That advice also sounded perfectly reasonable.

But one petitioner complained that the CHP didn’t follow the rule-making process, and the guidelines got erased. While they’re no longer on the patrol website, they still appear on a pro-lane-splitting website along with reminders to motorists that it’s illegal to block motorcycles and they shouldn’t take it upon themselves to discourage it.

The bill passed by the Legislature would authorize the CHP to develop educational guidelines after consulting with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Transportation, the Office of Traffic Safety, an unspecified motorcycle safety group, and any other groups interested in “road safety and motorcyclist behavior.”

I’d be rather disappointed, but Quirk says it’s the reality of lawmaking when not everyone falls in love with your bill. He says state agencies were reluctant to pass a bill with a lane-splitting speed limit based on one study.

“I just wanted to get something,” Quirk says. “Education is extremely important.”

More than 60 percent of motorcyclists lane split on freeways and other roads, according to the UC Berkeley study. A follow-up analysis released in May 2015 says that of nearly 6,000 motorcyclists involved in collisions from June 2012 through August 2013, 17 percent were lane splitting. Compared to other motorcyclists, lane splitters were much more likely to be involved in collisions during peak traffic times than motorcyclists who weren’t lane splitting, but were far less likely to be injured, thanks to wearing safer helmets and traveling at lower speeds.

Overall, motorcycle deaths and injuries were down 7 percent last year in California, though the total of 489 was the second most of any state other than Florida. Nationwide last year, fatalities jumped 10 percent, topping 5,000 for the first time since 2008.

Quirk doesn’t ride motorcycles and says he’s never had a close call with a lane-splitting motorcyclist while driving. He says while there has been a lot of lobbying by motorcycle groups, his meetings were friendly and he didn’t get any nasty calls. “I never felt they were angry,” he told me.

He’s lucky. I’ve had a few scary moments driving down Interstate 80 to Oakland. And when I write about this issue, I usually get lit up with not-so-nice emails and comments.

Rather, Quirk says the most intense pushback he received was from motorists who wanted lane-splitting abolished. California is the only state where lane splitting or lane sharing is not generally illegal.

While his bill doesn’t require that the CHP come up with guidelines, Quirk says he can’t imagine it wouldn’t since it tried before. The patrol won’t comment until after Brown acts on the bill.

There’s also no timetable attached, but Quirk says he hopes the CHP starts meeting with experts and interested groups early next year and finishes its work by the end of 2017.

Quirk says he’ll be fine with whatever is developed, but guesses the guidelines will be somewhere in between his original bill and the 2013 patrol policy.

If that’s the end result, it’ll be worth the effort. But it sure is taking a lot of detours to get there.