The History of Lane Splitting in California

Motorcyclists love their vehicles because they’re somehow easier to maneuver in congested traffic. They can find spaces that other cars can’t fit through, so it’s quite easy to get to the head of the lane. They can ride between the lanes of slow-moving vehicles to avoid traffic congestion and save time.  Some even feel that it’s a safer practice than staying behind stopped vehicles. Riding between the lanes is called “lane splitting” in California, and everyone always asks, is it legal to do in the state?

Many ask this question because in most states in the US, lane splitting is specifically forbidden by law. In California it is legal and the history of lane splitting will be explained below.

Is Lane Splitting Legal in California?

This is a long standing practice in the state, and California motorcyclists have done it for decades. Even the California Highway Patrol aren’t gung-ho about going after those who do it, especially when those who do so are lane splitting safely. Those motorcyclists who aren’t as careful, however, may be tagged by the CHP for reckless driving.

There are certainly different interpretations of what constitutes “safe” or “reckless” lane splitting. Over the years the CHP has released guidelines to help inform motorcyclists on what safe lane splitting requires. At least this reduced the confusion among motorcyclists so they know what was and wasn’t allowed.

This move did draw attention from leading law experts in the state, who then debated over whether it’s within law enforcement’s duty to dictate such guidelines. After all, the CHP is a law enforcement agency—and not a lawmaking body.

The Bill Making Lane Splitting Legal

It all came to a head, eventually, when in 2016 Assemblyman Bill Quirk introduced AB51 into the state legislature. The bill proposed to make the practice legal, and this was signed into law by Governor Brown. Thus, at the start of 2017 the lane splitting practice became explicitly legal.

The good news about the bill was that it resolved the issue of whether or not lane splitting was actually legal in the state. It also formally recognized the authority of the CHP over the practice. The bad news, however, is that some confusion still lingers over the issue. That’s because the law didn’t quite specifically describe what it meant to split lanes lawfully.

This wasn’t a problem in the original form of the bill. When it was first proposed, it included a guideline that specifically held lane splitting motorcyclists to a speed of no more than 15 mph faster than the slower vehicles around them. These motorcycles were also only able to go up to a maximum of 50 mph while lane splitting.

Unfortunately, these guidelines were not included in the final version of the bill that became law. Instead, the law contained a provision directing the CHP to come up with a set of guidelines that covered lane splitting. The CHP was supposed to consult with other relevant government agencies along with respected motorcycle safety groups. (To see the exact language of the law about this matter, you can look over Section 21658.1 of the California Vehicle Code).

UC Berkley Study on Lane Splitting

To help come up with the appropriate guidelines, the state authorized a lane splitting study led by UC Berkley researchers. These researchers studied accident statistics and reports covering the period from June 2012 to August 2013, and these reports also included stats on lane splitting accidents.

The researchers discovered that 5,969 motorcycle accidents were recorded in the state by law enforcement officials during the aforementioned time frame. These included 997 accidents that involved lane splitting, which constituted 17%.

So far, the CHP has yet to formally release its new guidelines for lane splitting, and thus for the moment the matter is still unresolved.

How to Avoid Breaking the Law While Lane Splitting

So what should you do if you’re a motorcyclist? It’s up to you to determine if you have the requisite skill to actually split lanes in a safe and prudent way. If you choose to practice lane splitting, you can eliminate most of the risk by adhering to the following suggested safety guidelines:

  • You should go at a speed of no more than 10mph faster than the slower vehicles around you. This may allow you see and react to any danger around you on the road. The faster you are compared to the other vehicles, the greater the risk of an accident.
  • If the traffic around you is moving at 30 mph or more, then it’s more prudent to avoid splitting lanes. Even when you’re traveling at only 20 mph on a motorcycle, you’ll probably need a second or two to identify a problem. During that time, you’ve traveled 30 to 60 feet before you even take evasive measures. That doesn’t even yet account for the time you need to brake and swerve around the hazard.
  • Your safest lane splitting option is to do so in between the 2 leftmost lanes. On the other hand, you ought to avoid splitting lanes near freeway exits and on-ramps. That’s because the cars may turn to provide more space for motorcycles on one side, and thereby limit the space on their other side.
  • Be aware of your entire surroundings so you can safely judge the safety hazards of lane splitting. Don’t split lanes near wide trucks, nor should you attempt to go through much narrower lanes.
  • Know the dimensions of your motorcycle so you know if you will really fit into a space or not. Your motorcycle may have wide handle bars that may not fit through the space you’re squeezing through.
  • Don’t try it on roads you don’t really know, as you may come upon road imperfections that can cause you to lose control. You should instead try it only on roads that you’re familiar with.
  • You should also avoid it when you have poor visibility. It may be too dark, or perhaps the weather is bad. Not only will you fail to see road hazards in time, but other motorists may not see you as easily. In many car and motorcycle collisions, often the cause is that the car driver didn’t see the motorcyclist in time.
  • You still need to drive defensively. This means you have to anticipate the actions of other motorists. Some of the other drivers on the road may be distracted or even impaired. You always have to be on the lookout for changing conditions. Defensive driving also means you don’t drive while you’re impaired.
  • It’s best to avoid the practice if you’re not sure you can fit, you’re at a toll booth, if the traffic is moving erratically or too quickly, if the visibility is poor, if you notice dangerous road hazards, and if you have to go by the side of wider vehicles like trucks. The basic rule is that if you’re in doubt, don’t do it.

What Should You Do If You Drive a Car?

The first thing you have to accept is that the practice of lane splitting is legal in California. If you’re from out of state, check your bias against the practice at the state line. It’s not your call to discourage motorcyclists from splitting lanes, and any action you may do to prevent motorcyclists from splitting lanes may not be legal. It’s expressly illegal for you to open your car door to block motorcycles from passing through in between lanes (CVC 22517). You also can’t intentionally impede or block a motorcyclist in a way that can cause them harm (CVC 22400).

You can practice safe driving behavior by doing the following:

  • Before you turn or change lanes, you should first check your mirrors and blind spots for other vehicles (including motorcycles). Be alert, since motorcycles are notoriously more difficult to notice than cars.
  • If you’re merging with traffic or changing lanes, always signal your intentions. This will help motorcyclists to anticipate your actions.
  • When you’re travelling behind a motorcycle, allow them more space so you have 3 to4 seconds of reaction time. That should help provide them an added measure of safety to hit the brakes and swerve around a hazard.

Traffic in California is always a problem, and it’s understandable that some motorcyclists may want to save time by splitting lanes. It’s perfectly legal for them to do so, and it doesn’t matter if you agree with this or not. What does matter is that whether you’re a motorcyclist or a car driver, you drive safely with proper respect for the other motorists around you.