Motorcycle Lane Splitting in California

 A recently proposed bill that would make changes to California’s Penal Code and allow motorcycle lane splitting on highways only under certain circumstances has put this highly controversial practice in the spotlight. People from both sides of the argument (including this California motorcycle accident attorney) are vigorously voicing their opinions even as the bill has been temporarily shelved.

Assembly Bill 51 (AB 51) was introduced to the Assembly with the intention of specifically regulating motorcycle lane splitting. Currently the practice is not specifically banned or regulated and is technically legal. If the bill had passed California would have been the first state in the nation to specifically regulate this controversial (and some would say dangerous) practice. Currently (September 2015), the bill is on hold.

What is Motorcycle Lane Splitting?

Even if you don’t know what lane splitting is, you’ve no doubt seen it first-hand. Lane splitting is when a motorcycle rides between two lanes of traffic going in the same direction, zipping by just inches from stopped or moving vehicles. In fact, it’s one common cause of motorcycle accidents in San Francisco.

Currently the CHP turns a blind eye to lane splitting because it is not specifically forbidden by the California Penal Code. Motorcyclists who lane split can still be ticketed for related practices which are illegal (such as following too close, failure to signal before lane change, etc.).

Unfortunately, motorcyclists who are injured in crashes caused by lane splitting are often ruled at-fault even if another motorist’s actions contributed to the crash. This can make the job of a San Francisco motorcycle accident attorney exceptionally problematic and earning the compensation victims deserve can prove difficult.

What Would the California Motorcycle Lane Splitting Bill Allow?

The new assembly Bill 51, co-authored by Bill Quirk, would allow motorcycles to lane split if 1) traffic is moving at 35 mph or less and 2) the motorcycle is not driven more than 10 mph faster than that traffic.

The actual wording of the proposed bill is below:

“(c) (1) A motorcycle, as defined in Section 400, may be driven between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane, including both divided and undivided streets, roads, or highways, if both of the following conditions are present: (A) The speed of traffic moving in the same direction is 35 miles per hour or less. (B) The motorcycle is not driven more than 10 miles per hour faster than the speed of traffic moving in the same direction.”

These specific regulations are based on the results of a study published by researchers at UC Berkley but did the bill’s authors read only what they wanted to see?

From a legal standpoint, a San Francisco motorcycle accident attorney may have trouble defending bikers involved in these types of collisions as it would be difficult (if not impossible) to prove exactly what speed the bike was travelling at the time of the crash.

Is Lane Splitting Dangerous?

As a San Francisco motorcycle accident attorney I cannot recommend lane splitting as a safe activity. In fact, the same study that the bill’s authors relied on for their safety data found that nearly 1/6 of all motorcycle accidents in California were caused by lane splitting. That’s roughly 75 accidents per year. Many of these accidents involve motorcycles striking multiple cars as they lose control and can end with the riders pinned under or between vehicles. However, as a motorcyclist myself for many years, I do understand the appeal of lane-splitting and have enjoyed the convenience on occasion.

However, in spite of the danger lane splitting is already fairly common. In fact, according to Mr. Quirk, nearly 80% of motorcyclists report that they lane split at least occasionally (though other studies put that figure closer to 60%)

The practice is so common that the California Highway Patrol and the Office of Traffic Safety commissioned researchers at UC Berkley to examine crash data from over 80 law enforcement agencies across the state during a year-long study into the practice.

The findings are a mixed bag. As mentioned above, nearly 1/6 of all motorcycle accidents in California involve lane splitting. However, the study also found that lane splitting is no more dangerous (to the motorcyclists) than riding in traffic (specifically being rear ended by other motor vehicles). Analyzing the crash data, the Berkley study found that lane splitting was ‘safe’ if the traffic was travelling at 50 mph or slower and the difference between the speed of the traffic and the speed of the motorcycle was 15 mph or less.

While the authors of AB 51 jumped on this finding, they ignored other crash data such as the fact that lane splitters were more likely to be involved in crashes during the morning and afternoon commutes than motorcyclists who road with traffic. The report didn’t address the number of automobile accidents which may have been caused (at least in part) by lane splitting.

Mike D.

"I was in a serious motorcycle accident that was not my fault. It has been a stressful and scary year. But one of the comforts through it all has been the services that Sally Morin provided. While I was focused on my health, she was taking care of everything else."

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AB 51 Falls Short in the Senate – Lane Splitting Gets Flak from All Sides

While AB51 passed in the Assembly with a unanimous vote of support, the legislation was effectively shelved for the year because it failed to pass in the State senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee before the July 17th deadline. This set back, combined with the mounting oppositions from concerned motorists and bikers alike forced Bill Quirk to pull the bill from consideration—at least temporarily.

In a statement Quirk said that he would need more time to consider the wording of the bill and would like to come back with a refined version that will make the bill more likely to pass in the Senate.

Motorists Oppose AB 51

As many as 2/3 of motorists (according to an online survey) think lane splitting is a dangerous practice and making it legal is a bad idea. In fact, many motorists have voiced the opinion that the practice should be made illegal, citing personal anecdotes involving “bullies” on bikes and at least one instance were a woman was struck twice in one year by lane splitting motorcycles.

Bikers Oppose AB 51

Bikers aren’t behind the bill either. The American Biker’s Association said that AB 51 was too restrictive and needed to allow lane splitting at higher speeds in order to be effective. Though the intent of the bill was to regulate the practice, as it stands now bikers can legally lane split as long as they follow the other rules of the road.

The Future of Lane Splitting In California

While it appears the current version of AB 51 is dead in the water, the amount of excitement around the issue likely means that another version is likely to appear in the future. It may also mean that bills outlawing lane splitting may be submitted as well as passionate parties take on this issue from both sides.

While it’s too early to predict what will happen, it’s important to note that if you are injured in a motorcycle accident in California, you have legal options available to you—even if you participated in lane splitting. Contact a qualified motorcycle accident attorney in San Francisco as soon as you’re able to discuss your case confidentially.