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Lane Splitting May Be Legal in California, But It's Not Always Safe

In most states, "lane splitting" -- the practice of passing between vehicles on a bike or motorcycle -- is illegal, and with good reason. As a rider myself, I know that maneuvering your bike between two cars, sometimes in motion and sometimes with only inches of space on either side, is a recipe for disaster. When you're splitting lanes, sometimes it's impossible to be sure that the cars you're passing can actually see you in their rearview or side mirrors. One wrong move by a car can easily launch a lane-splitter from his or her bike and onto the road.

But in California, lane splitting is legal, and many riders do it, sometimes with disastrous results. On Sunday evening, a 27-year-old motorcyclist in San Jose died after attempting to split lanes on Highway 101. According to reports, the biker was attempting to pass a Honda Civic that was driving next to another vehicle. The rider ran into the back of the Honda and was then ejected off his bike and onto the highway, where he was hit by another vehicle. He died on the scene. The name of the victim has not yet been released, and authorities are still investigating whether drugs or alcohol were factors in the accident. It's still unclear what caused the rider to hit the Honda.

For motorcyclists, lane splitting is a convenient way to navigate congested roads, and in California, a state notorious for its traffic jams, it can be especially useful. No one likes sitting on a motorcycle in stop-and-go traffic. It only adds to congestion, and when you're sandwiched between two large vehicles, the fear of getting rear-ended by a distracted driver is still very real. Still, passing cars adds an entirely new dynamic to what's happening on the road at any given time. This means that if you are going to split lanes, it is imperative that you do it as safely as possible to avoid a potentially-catastrophic collision.

A couple years ago, the California Highway Patrol actually put out some guidelines for lane splitting. Here's a rundown of their advice (and you can get more info here):

  • Don't go more than 10 mph faster than the cars you're passing.
  • Don't split lanes if the overall speed of the cars is more than 30 mph. Higher speeds equals higher accident probability.
  • Avoid splitting lanes when someone else is doing it nearby. Cars might accidentally make room for one rider and then overcompensate and block another.
  • Don't split near freeway onramps and exits. Your safest bet is to go between the fastest and the second fastest lanes.
  • Be aware of your environment. If it's dark, or the weather is bad, or the roads are in bad shape, or the lanes are too narrow... you might want to reconsider.
  • Know thyself (and the dimensions of thy bike).
  • Anticipate everything that could go wrong and have an escape plan.

Here's the bottom line. As a biker in California, you have the right to split lanes within the guidelines set forth by the CHP. And you have the right to share the road in this manner with all other vehicles. As a California motorcycle accident attorney, I advocate for motorcyclists and their safety, which is why I hate to see accidents such as the one I mentioned above. As a motorcyclist, I personally choose not to split lanes because I've seen it go terribly wrong far too many times. Ultimately, experienced riders need to make the choice that's right for them, and the cars on the road need to respect those decisions.

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