Pros and Cons of Lane Splitting

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Here's a radical idea for increasing motorcycle sales: Promote the concept of lane splitting, as it's commonly known, or lane sharing, the legal term.

Outside of California, most people (including motorcyclists) react to the concept of lane splitting with horror, revulsion and general opposition, which for the life of me I can't figure out.

I think that the United States and possibly Canada are the only two industrialized countries in the world where some version of lane splitting or filtering is not permitted. Consider Japan: When you roll to a controlled intersection there are two stop lines, one for four-wheeled vehicles and one for two-wheeled vehicles. Consider most European countries in which I've ridden (and it's a fairly long list): Bikes work their way through jammed traffic whether the laws specifically permit it or not. It might be just a mutual understanding among motorists.

California is the only state in the union that permits the flow of motorcycles between lanes of stopped or slow-moving cars; however, even there it is discouraged. The practice seems to be permitted (or not) at the whim of the jurisdiction or the officer on the scene.

In my almost 30 years of riding in California, I've never been stopped while lane splitting, but I usually do it only when the traffic is slowed to a crawl or stopped completely, and then at a relatively low speed.

Most outside observers contend the practice is dangerous. The Hurt Report, the last substantive report on the cause of motorcycle accidents, indicated that splitting lanes was not a significant factor in contributing to accidents. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Hurt stated, "It's better to be in between cars laterally."

I have never seen or experienced a motorcycle accident caused by lane splitting. As Keith Code once put it to me, if two cars are side by side in heavy traffic or are stopped, they sure as hell aren't going to turn into one another.

California drivers have had years of experience with lane sharing, and many will move over to give the rider more room as he passes; very few make hostile attempts to cut him off.

A motorcycle or a scooter is a great way to commute but only if you want to save gas; otherwise, it's a pain in the butt. It's usually too hot, or too cold, or too wet. You have to have special training and gear. If you have to stay behind a car in bumper-to-bumper traffic, it's miserable.

Years ago I was riding down to Atlanta from the Honda Hoot and hit stop-and-go traffic on I-95. There I was, on a Triumph Thunderbird Sport, it was in the 90s and I was kitted out in perforated leathers. The heat, the humidity and the smell of car and truck exhaust were almost unbearable. In the meantime the guys in cars were wrapped in steel pleasure cocoons with air conditioning and audio entertainment. There must have been a 5-foot alleyway between the cars, and had I been permitted to lane split, I would have been to my destination in five minutes — out of the traffic pattern. Nothing would have changed for the cars; my absence would not have made one iota of difference to them. It was at that moment that I realized that motorcycles are not a convenient mode of commuting for most people.

When I moved back to California my daily commute was 54 miles each way. Usually I car-pooled with Dealernews honcho Mary Slepicka, except on Fridays during the summer when we would take the bike. On Friday afternoons traffic would be backed up for the entire ride home. Lane splitting enabled us both to get home within a reasonable amount of time.

If lane splitting were more prevalent, particularly in metropolitan areas, it would make a motorcycle or scooter much more practical as a commuter tool. As it is, you've just got to love riding to make one work as a commuter vehicle.

Mike Vaughan is the former publisher of Dealernews. You can reach him at mvaughan@mikevaughan.com or via editors@dealernews.com.