CA lane-splitting controversy could prove harmful for motorcyclists

Motorcycle riding is incredibly popular in San Rafael. With 800,000 riders, California as a whole has more motorcyclists than any other state, according to Business Week. Sadly, the state also experiences a high rate of motorcycle accidents; from 2010 to 2011 alone, almost 11,000 injuries occurred, representing a 20 percent increase over the year before.

The issue of motorcycle accidents has recently been brought to attention by the state-wide controversy over motorcycle lane-splitting during traffic jams. Unfortunately, the state's current position over this issue could leave motorcyclists in danger.

Growing controversy

Lane-splitting occurs when motorcyclists drive down the space between lanes while traffic is stopped or moving slowly. According to the Los Angeles Times, California is currently the only state that does not outlaw this practice.

In the past, the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Motor Vehicles provided lane-splitting guidelines to help make the maneuver safer. According to Business Week, the guidelines encouraged riders only to lane split if they were competent, traveling under 30 miles per hour and riding in between first and second lanes. The guidelines also warned other drivers against moving between lanes to intentionally block lane-splitting.

Earlier this year, however, a complaint prompted the Office of Administrative Law to ask the CHP to remove its guidelines. The DMV soon followed suit. Critics worried that the agencies were endorsing lane-splitting, which is a maneuver that makes most drivers uncomfortable and is often viewed as dangerous, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Despite these perceptions, studies indicate that prudent lane-splitting may actually lower motorcycle accident rates. Most lane-splitting accidents involve drivers or riders who were making unsafe decisions. This means the removal of the guidelines could leave motorcyclists in greater danger.

Accident avoidance

When performed correctly, lane-splitting can offer various benefits for motorcyclists. The Los Angeles Times reports the following facts:

  • Motorcycles often lack radiators and rely on air cooling, so standing in traffic can result in overheating. Lane-splitting allows motorcyclists to keep moving and maintain proper vehicle function.
  • Lane-splitting reduces the likelihood of a motorcyclist being struck from behind while stopped in traffic. Such incidents pose a real threat to riders, representing one-quarter of all motorcycle accidents, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
  • One study has suggested that the national allowance of lane-splitting could prevent 18,000 motorcycle accidents and 170 fatalities on a yearly basis by helping motorcyclists avoid other common accident causes.
  • The risks of lane-splitting may be exaggerated, as some accidents occur due to poor choices, rather than risks inherent to the maneuver. For instance, a 2012 report found that 7 percent of California drivers admitted to swerving to block a motorcyclist from lane-splitting.

Unfortunately, without guidelines in place, California motorcyclists may face unnecessary dangers while performing a perfectly legal maneuver. According to the Los Angeles Times, more than half of drivers think lane-splitting is illegal, and two-thirds disapprove of the practice. This raises the risk of drivers being unaware of riders or performing dangerous maneuvers such as lane blocking.

Any motorcyclist who has been hurt because of the negligent actions of another driver should consider speaking with an attorney about legal remedies.