Technically speaking, there is no motorcycle lane splitting law in California. Why? Because the practice is not illegal and never has been. In fact, up until 2017 it had never been officially recognized by the California law enforcement agencies at all. That changed with the addition of Section 21658.1 (a) of the California Highway Code.
This section, while technically not a motorcycle lane splitting law in California, defines lane splitting as "driving a motorcycle, as defined in Section 400, that has two wheels in contact with the ground, between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane, including on both divided and undivided streets, roads or highways."
(Be aware that riding on the shoulder (except where and when permitted under special circumstances) is still illegal. It is NOT considered lane splitting.)
Ok, so there’s no written law on motorcycle lane splitting, but is it legal? For years the legality of lane splitting in California was dubious. While the CHP and other law enforcement agencies declined to actively pursue punishing lane splitters, the practice was, technically, not legal. Oddly enough, neither was it technically illegal. In fact, there were no specific laws or regulations on the books in California about the practice.
However, effective January 1, 2017, section 21658.1 was added to the California Vehicle Code (via AB 51) in the face of growing pressure from both sides of the issue to regulate the practice of lane splitting. This section effectively and explicitly defines lane splitting and calls upon the CHP to create guidelines for the practice. This makes California the first state in the nation that has legally recognized lane splitting. Although there are several specific motorcycle laws on the books in California, this new section is not technically a motorcycle lane splitting law in California.
The push for a California motorcycle lane splitting law was a long one with many failed attempts by legislators to craft bills that would allow motorcyclists to slip between lines of slow or stalled traffic in order to reduce congestion. While the practice is somewhat controversial here in The United States, it is fairly common and generally regarded as acceptable in Europe and many countries throughout the world.
The new regulation isn't without its detractors. Many safety advocates say that lane splitting puts both the motorcyclist and other drivers on the road at increased risk. And they're right. However, when done safely, prudently, and cautiously, lane splitting can be an effective and safe tool for motorcyclists.
So what does all that mean? AB 51 isn't technically a California lane splitting law. It's a way of officially recognizing lane splitting but because the practice was never technically illegal. Indeed, AB 51 doesn't really change the legality of lane splitting. It doesn't, however, give lawmakers, police officers, the insurance industry, and the legal system the ability to make official policies and decisions about the practice and those who engage in it.
As a motorcycle accident attorney I cannot recommend lane splitting as a safe activity. Not because the act itself is dangerous, but because the motorists around us simply don't pay enough attention to avoid causing accidents with motorcyclists who are lane splitting. In fact, the same study that AB 51'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 resulting in serious motorcycle accident injuries.
For years proponents of some sort of California lane splitting law have called on a single portion of the landmark Hurt Report (created in 1981) that states lane splitting slightly decreases the occurrence of actual motorcycle crashes. And while there is much anecdotal support for lane splitting—most centering around how the practice reduces traffic congestion and gives motorcyclists a safe "exit strategy" so they're not struck from behind—there's very little actual scientific research into the safety of lane splitting.
However, one fairly extensive study of motorcycle accidents by researchers at Berkley found that lane splitting was a "relatively safe" practice but only when conducted at speeds of 50 MPH or less and when the motorcyclist was traveling no more than 15 MPH hour faster than the traffic around them.
In fact, it's that speed differential that radically increases the risk of lane splitting motorcycle accidents. The Berkley researchers found that at differentials higher than 15 MPH "the risk of injury rose significantly.”
But, even with lane splitting technically now legally recognized in California, the practice still carries with it significant risk of injury. In fact, the CHP wants to remind motorcyclists that "every rider has the ultimate responsibility for their own decision-making and safety."
One study found that nearly 80% of motorcyclists in California have engaged in lane splitting at one time or another. However, as many as 2/3 of motorists (according to an online survey) think lane splitting is a dangerous practice and passing an official California lane splitting law would be 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 in which a woman was struck twice in one year by lane splitting motorcycles.
This resentment is a manifestation of the bias against bikers that prevails into the criminal justice and civil liability systems here in The United States. However, that resentment is not completely without justification. A quick search of news articles online finds dozens of pieces about motorcyclists speeding, riding erratically, engaging in unsafe behaviors and worse. These bad apples have tainted public opinion against every biker and made it difficult to officially pass a motorcycle lane splitting law in California.
Responding to public pressure, the CHP created lane splitting guidelines before the practice was technically acceptable. They posted them on their website way back in 2013 but were told to take them down on the grounds that this act could be seen as "establishing a new law." These guidelines lay dormant for years until AB 51 officially took effect in January of 2017. Now those modified guidelines are live on the CHP website again.
Indeed, the California Highway Patrol has created a short list of motorcycle lane splitting safety tips that riders should be aware of in order to reduce the risk of being involved in a motorcycle accident while lane splitting. The CHP advises that:
One of the most complicated issues surrounding lane splitting in California is that of accident liability. While AB 51 isn't technically a motorcycle lane splitting law in California, and doesn't officially "legalize" the practice, the conditions laid forth in the modified California Vehicle Code and by the CHP officially recognizing lane splitting do give interested parties (such as insurance companies and motorcycle accident attorneys) a firm basis on which to build cases for liability.
AB 51 officially charged the California Highway Patrol with developing guidelines for motorcyclists to follow relating to lane splitting in order to “ensure the safety of the motorcyclist and the drivers and passengers of the surrounding vehicles.”
While these "guidelines" aren't technically laws, the behaviors that they discourage can be portrayed as reckless, careless, and negligent. For example, if a motorcyclist is lane splitting at excessive speed or in a situation that's not safe (such as between tractor trailers), that rider is knowingly engaging in activities that increase the risk of being involved in a motorcycle accident.
That element of awareness can be construed as the rider accepting liability for any accident that may occur.
On the flip side, any driver who actively (or even passively) engages in an activity that impedes with a riders ability to safely lane split and causes a motorcycle accident may now face complaints based solidly in legal precedence. For example, a driver sees a rider lane splitting and intentionally closes the gap between their vehicle and the traffic in the next lane over, they could be held liable if they cause a crash.
What it boils down to is that motorcycle accidents involving lane splitting still reside in murky legal waters. Without an explicitly worded motorcycle lane splitting law in California, it will continue to be hard for motorcyclists to get the compensation they deserve. However, AB 51 and the CHP's safety guidelines give victims of lane splitting motorcycle accidents important tools they can use to shift liability from their shoulders to the motorist who actually caused their crash. But doing so won't be easy, because the average person doesn't fully understand the motorcycle lane splitting law in California - or lack thereof that permits lane splitting when done safely. Lane splitting accidents can be an uphill battle when trying to get fair compensation for your motorcycle accident.
The motorcycle lane splitting law in California is very misunderstood by motorists, witnesses and the general public. So, if you or someone you love has suffered serious injuries in a lane-splitting motorcycle accident, see if we can help by getting a FREE case evaluation anytime 24/7.
We've obtained solid settlements (like this one for $550,000) in lane splitting motorcycle accident cases for our clients.
If you've been injured, consult with an experienced motorcycle accident attorney in California to learn your rights and the expectations put on you during the recovery process.