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Lane Splitting

The earlier posting on late merging reminds reader Joel of the issue of “lane splitting,” by which motorcyclists (and sometimes bicyclists) ride in the space between cars, ideally in heavy traffic. This is legal in California and other states, but, as he points out, it seems to raise drivers’ hackles (in places like Rome, of course, it’s an everyday fact of life, as scooters by the dozens “filter” between cars to settle near the front of stopped queues at traffic lights).

It’s an interesting, much-discussed issue (see here or here for example) because it raises so many of the issues that come up in traffic: Social justice (hey, why are they allowed to move when I’m stuck in traffic), different modes sharing the same road space, trading off risks, not to mention cognitive psychology.

Like so many things in traffic, it’s complex. In theory, I like the idea — why shouldn’t we use as much road space as possible? (the extra lane space put in for safety at high speeds is essentially wasted during congestion). A motorcycle between streams of cars shortens the length of the queue for cars, after all (and unlike HOV or hybrid lanes, doesn’t reduce existing highway space). On the other hand, there have been times when I’ve been absolutely startled by a motorcyclist unexpectedly passing me. This raises the question of the “attentional set”: If we don’t usually expect motorcycles to be there, will we not see them as we change lanes, or if we unintentionally “drift” a bit? (for the biker, the added problem is the people who don’t signal before changing).

And yet the smaller visual profile of motorcycles means we may not see them in front of us as easily as a car — not to mention the fact that the small fender-bender of stop-and-go traffic means more to a cyclist’s health than a car driver’s — and this brings up the point that has always been made vis a vis lane splitting: That being rear-ended by a car is a much greater hazard than riding between the lanes. The leading authority on this, and motorcycle safety in general, is Harry Hurt, author of the famous “Hurt Report” and now based here, who is quoted here as saying: “For a motorcyclist, that’s the safest place to be [between streams of traffic]… A lot of people think it’s a hazard, but the cold, hard facts are that it’s not.”

As far as I know, the “Hurt Report” has never been duplicated in size or scope, even as more motorcyclists have hit the road. The author himself seemed to think its 1970s-era findings, however, still hold valid.

As it happens, yesterday I was just reading a piece in Outside about the idea of bringing Asian-style “motorcycle taxis” to the U.S. The piece notes:

In the U.S., moto-taxis face two main obstacles. The first is insurance. When EagleRider, now the largest motorcycle-rental company, initially shopped for insurance, their rates were three times what they’re paying now. The second problem is a traffic law in 37 states that bans “splitting”—the practice of riding between lanes. Sounds unsafe, but even when allowed, it accounts for only 3 percent of motorcycle fatalities. When it’s outlawed, you’re stuck in crosstown traffic just like everyone else, only you’re breathing exhaust.

The 3% number is interesting; then again, if lane-splitting was only done when it is supposed to be, during slow or stopped heavy traffic, I wouldn’t expect large numbers of fatalities.

Any motorcyclists out there care to weigh in? Cyclists? Drivers? People selling things at traffic lights? (they too lane split)

And just to muddy the waters, speaking of social justice and road sharing, I’ve been annoyed lately to see motorized scooters chugging along in the bike lanes in Brooklyn and elsewhere. My knee-jerk reaction is ‘that’s not what their for” and ‘I don’t want your exhaust in my face’; but maybe I’m too harsh — perhaps if it’s otherwise unoccupied it’d be OK. But while it may make them feel safer, they may only be raising their exposure to “dooring” and other hazards.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 25th, 2009 at 12:31 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Motorcycles, Risk, Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

18 Responses to “Lane Splitting”

  1. Matt Says:

    I cycle in London.

    I’ll lane split if I think I can get to the front of the queue before the traffic lights change, or if the traffic is so busy that when they do change I can keep up anyway anyway.

    The whole point of cycling is that I get there quicker and don’t cause congestion, if I had to sit in traffic with the cars I may as well drive!

  2. Paul Says:

    Allowing lane splitting makes sense. California is the only US state in which it is legal and that is only at relatively low speed (maybe 20mph?) As a motorcyclist, it is a no-brainer to squeeze through stopped traffic. Things get a little hairy when the speeds rise. Using signals when changing lanes seems to be the exception rather than the rule in DC, making me very hesitant to lane split above about 5mph.

    I will second the fact that car drivers HATE lane splitting. It does not affect their forward progress, yet they react as if you’d cut them off.

  3. Gary K. Says:

    I lane split all the time by bicycle. Usually on main boulevards that get backed up, but also once as part of a organized sort of protest ride, on the 10 and 405 freeways which even included a few people on rollerblades (yup they were faster than cars on the freeway too during rush hour). http://blog.wired.com/cars/2008/05/in-a-city-built.html

    The surprising thing to me was how much safer I felt lane splitting on the freeway because I was used to surface streets with tight spaces. Passing cars on the freeway was a breeze. Some people reacted to this with out right rage in their faces, a few even tried to hit people by opening their door, but others cheered us on and excitedly snapped cell phone pics of cyclists and in-line skaters beating cars on the freeway.

    It can get a little sketchy at times on surface streets, but I’ve found through experience how to anticipate moves of cars and when car mirrors are too tight for me to get through. At night I use a really high powered flashing LED headlight that gives cars a heads up that I am passing them, and I find that helps cut down on people drifting or doing weird stuff. I’m too cautious to lane split very fast, but I see some cyclists who do it so effortlessly it looks like an art form as they make delicate curves between all cars and side view mirrors. I find that in Los Angeles most people don’t take to lane splitting with much anger, perhaps because they are so used to sitting in traffic they have resigned that it is their fate to sit motionlessly for extended durations on their commute.

    Concerning scooters and other not car machines weaker than a motorcycle using the bike lane, I generally am opposed to the idea. However I am even more opposed to people who have what I call transportation identity crisis, where they are on some moped or some such machine too slow to travel as fast as cars, but is not a bicycle, and they weave in and out of the bike lane and the regular lane. When there are no perceived cars behind them they leave the bike lane but as soon as a big car comes they freak out and weave into the bike lane, effectively annoying cyclists and motorists. I have seen people do this a few times in Santa Monica bike lanes.

  4. Colin Says:

    I lane-split on my bicycle. I consider it safe as long as the traffic is motionless. As soon as it starts moving I feel vulnerable to lane-changers, so I merge into a gap.

    Motorists seem to hate it due to their warped idea of social justice; they think it’s “cheating”. I see it as using a better tool for the job. Motorists have chosen to use an excessively wide vehicle, so they can hardly complain about the effects of their choice.

    Lane-splitting is legal in Australia.

  5. Pavel Says:

    There is no language in the California Vehicle Code that would set explicit limits on lane splitting. Instead a standard “safe and prudent for road conditions” speed is mandated. Determining whether the speed was safe and prudent is left to the officer or judge.
    I split lanes a lot in Bay Area and when I do not, I’m virtually always tailgated by car drivers that do not register me in between their car and the car in front of me. The danger of getting hit from behind by a wound up inattentive commuter is more real than the one of hitting a car (or being hit by a car) that changes lanes without a warning.
    “Social justice” in given context appears to be neither social nor justice but rather a term for channeling anxiety. When I split lanes I protect the unfortunate ones in cars and the environment from all the carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide that my can would have emitted, I also do not occupy a slot on the road, so instead of judging drivers should praise me.

  6. John Campion Says:

    I ride a pedal cycle in the UK.

    I have to say, I don’t lane split all that much. I do pass stationary traffic occasionally (mostly in bike lanes adjacent to the main carriageway). I use the gaps on the right of motor vehicles only when I’ve a clear view ahead, and when the traffic is obviously not going anywhere. The times of my commute tend to mean that traffic is flowing rather well in general, so I don’t mind waiting in the lane with traffic that much. (I make a short term gain in getting to the head of the queue at traffic signals, but then have most, if not all of the traffic pass me once we’re moving again. If I wait in lane, I’m visible to any vehicle queueing behind me, and don’t have the whole queue passing me again once we’re underway.)

    As far as I’m concerned, impatience is a vice I’m happy to leave to drivers ;)

  7. Carlton Reid Says:

    In all my 25 years of cycle commuting – and 20+ years of cycle journalism – I’ve never once considered ‘lane splitting’ anything other than normal.

    I had no idea it was illegal in some US States (and I ought to bloody well know given that I’m writing the Bike to Work Book!) and will check into the legality of it in the UK. I edit the British bike industry owned website Bikeforall.net and maintain a lengthy article on cycling and the law. http://www.bikeforall.net/content/cycling_and_the_law.php

    I’m 100 percent with Harry Hurt. That gap feels safe to me. Naturally, I keep my eyes peeled for lane changers and realise I’m often riding in drivers’ blindspots but if I were to take up the exact same space as a car, moving at car speed in a queue of traffic (ie slow to the point of exasperation), I may as well be in a car.

  8. Ian Walker Says:

    I both cycle and ride a motorbike, and happily filter on both as long as the traffic is at a stand-still, or moving slowly. I like to think of this as using the available road-space efficiently. If you look at a queue of cars, most of the time many of them are carrying only one person. This means an awful lot of space is being used to transport a relatively small number of people. If those of us on two wheels can help rectify this inefficiency a bit, so much the better.

    And, lest I be accused of double-standards, when I’m in a car I’m more than happy for the bikers to swing by, and will move over to let them if I can. It’s not like they’re going to hold me up later.

  9. Lee Watkins Says:

    I both ride a bike and drive in DC and Baltimore on a regular basis. On a bicycle I can make it all the way from one side of the city to the other during rush hour in 15-20 minutes, provided I lane-split and treat all the signals as a yield sign. Meanwhile driving a car would take over an hour in rush hour, and I would be tempted to speed the parts that weren’t congested. Certainly the bike poses less danger to others, slows everyone else down less, saves me money, and still gets me there faster and in a better mood. I definitely always lane-split as much as possible. Thousands of people are doing this in DC every day, and you only get on average one cyclist fatality a year. The last cyclist who was killed in DC was in a marked bike lane in a door zone – not lane splitting. The one the year before that was using a side street divided by the main part of K street by a lane separator. In fact I can’t recall anyone killed lane-splitting here in recent history. Whenever I’m driving in traffic, I scoot over as far out of the way of cyclists as possible to make a good path for them. Wouldn’t want to spoil their happy ride. Sometimes motorists will do that for me as well, although many of them go absolutely crazy – luckily they are stuck in traffic! I figure the angry ones must not get out on a bicycle very often. The solution is to get more people out on bikes.

  10. Lee Watkins Says:

    I should add that in 4 years driving in DC I’ve had 3 accidents (none were my fault) 2 of those cars were totaled. I’ve been nearly killed several times in crosswalks as well, mainly by trucks and buses. In my experience the bicycle is by far the safest way to get around so long as you stay out where your are visible, yield at signals, and proceed casually. If anything lane splitting makes you more visible – lots of people will take notice of you! while you can easily be overlooked over in the shoulder/bike-lane and catch a right-hook – like that dump truck that killed that 22yo Amherst college student who was interning at a non-profit. She was in the bike lane where she was “supposed to be”.

  11. Joel Says:

    Carlton:

    I believe California is the only state in the U.S. that allows lane splitting/filtering. You might check around to verify, but I know it’s definitely illegal on most of the east coast.

    And tom:

    Thanks for reading your comments. cheers.

  12. Carlton Reid Says:

    Thanks for that, Joel. I’m amazed.

    I sought clarification on the UK situation from Roger Geffen of the UK’s cycle advocacy org, CTC. It used to be a grey area but now very much isn’t. Lane splitting is allowed in UK. In latest Highway Code, drivers switching lanes are warned to watch out for cyclists.

    Full details now updated in this article:
    http://www.bikeforall.net/content/cycling_and_the_law.php

  13. MikeOnBike Says:

    Note that most states have a bicycle “far to the right” law which requires cyclists and motorists to split lanes, with some exceptions.

    In many situations, such as near intersections, forcing cyclists to split lanes is riskier than allowing cyclists to use the full lane.

    No other vehicle drivers, not even motorcyclists, not even slow vehicle drivers, are required to split lanes. Only bicyclists.

    So for motorcyclists, we’re fretting over whether they’re even allowed to split lanes.

    But for bicyclists, it’s the opposite problem. It’s assumed that bicyclists are required to split lanes in many situations, unless they can convince a police officer or judge (or honking motorist) that one of the exceptions applies.

  14. Ed Says:

    Those of you that are members of Facebook, please join the Legalize Lane Sharing group at:

    http://apps.facebook.com/causes/113221/17952148?m=f9d0788c

    This will help raise awareness with the AMA which has thus far not been very helpful.

  15. Dom Says:

    I love that Outside says only motorcylists breathe exhaust, because of course, car drivers are protected by their magical shiny box. Cabin filtration, if you have it, only eliminates soot, not carbon monoxide. Nice try though. I don’t lane split much – it’s under 30mph here in Cal with conditions permitting essentially, and those that are opposed are usually quickly smacked down by CHP – I’ve seen them pull people over who intentionally impede motorcyclists. Since many of the CHP are on motorcycles, this seems logical. A few years ago a bay area morning show encouraged ‘taking out’ lane splitting bikers – they were just imported to Cal; their show had originally been airing in Philadelphia. It became a national incident when Leon Penetta, a former transportation secretary got the FCC involved in maybe bringing a fine against the station for endangering peoples lives while they try to lighten the load on infrastructure. I’m patient with cars as a rider, but not politically – it’s very hard to understand why there are multiple perks for buying a ‘green’ car – carpool lane, no tolls, tax breaks… motorcycles generally egt better milage, way less (again with the infrastructure thing), take less parking space but still it’s nearly impossible to get a loan to buy a scooter to commute on, and insurance is outrageous, and if you can afford 6500-12000 dollas outright, you are probably hyper responsible, regardless of whether you look like a hooligan. And I have to say, I think that is why the east coast problmes with it – it’s also possible it’s a good idea since with snow, people would be even less prepared for smaler vehicles in their blindspots as it would be only part of the year when it would be happening.

  16. Serge Issakov Says:

    Tom, you write that lane splitting is legal in California and some other states. What other states? And by “legal” do you mean there is no statute that explicitly makes lane splitting illegal, or what? I’ve seen claims that lane splitting is illegal in all states but California, even states that don’t have explicit statutes prohibiting lane splitting, because courts have ruled that lane splitting violates some other more general statute (like recklessness, or basic speed law, or unsafe lane change). In others, lane splitting is legal in California when it is done safely and prudently. But in other states, apparently, lane splitting is considered to never be safe, and, so, always illegal. If you could shed some light on this topic, it would be very helpful.

  17. Frank Eggers Says:

    According to what I’ve read, lane splitting is not legal in Texas. However, I’ve never ridden a motorcycle where lane splitting was legal.

    Riding on the shoulder is illegal, but what is one supposed to do when there is an accident on the freeway that has the traffic totally stopped, the temperature is 95 degrees F, the sun is beating down, and one is wearing (hot) full protective gear? If one did not ride on the shoulder, one would probably die of heat stroke!!

  18. LycanR1 Says:

    I’m all for it as long as traffic is stopped or in an emergency. Just be extremely cautious, especially for bicyclists that are completely disregarding he traffic laws they are supposed to follow. To all the bicyclists here, the reason there are so few fatalities is that we all have heart attacks and nearly kill ourselves when you guys run red lights, turn across several car lanes at a light just turning green, and come beside my motorcycle while i am already occupying the lane and then running a red light.

    I think the rule should be, if lane splitting was legal, bicyclists should not be eligible. Exhibit A: Bicyclist lane splits, runs a red light and now rides in the right lane resulting in impeded traffic. Classic, “I get across DC faster than the traffic” excuse. It’s one thing to have a fast zippy motorcycle run around me, but a bicycle? Stick to the law, follow it, it saves lives and for goodness sakes:

    STOP AT RED LIGHTS. PERIOD.

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