Lane Splitting Controversy: Legal Status and Its Role in Motorcycle Accidents

Riding a motorcycle allows you to maneuver through tight areas where other motor vehicles don’t fit. When you’re stuck in congested Orange County traffic, you may be tempted to ride between lanes of traffic to reach your destination faster.

This practice, known as lane splitting, is technically legal in California — but motorcyclists are split on whether it’s a good idea. Should you cut lane splitting from your riding habits altogether? Learn the details of the lane-splitting controversy and its role in motorcycle accidents. 

What Is Lane Splitting on a Motorcycle?

California Vehicle Code 21658.1 defines lane splitting as operating a motorcycle between rows of moving or stopped traffic in the same lane. Because motorcycles are much smaller than passenger vehicles, they can often fit between rows of cars. Motorcyclists engage in lane splitting to move around slow-moving traffic or attempt to relieve congestion in busy motorways. 

Lane splitting is distinct from lane filtering, which is the practice of riding a motorcycle between stopped vehicles, usually at an intersection. It is also different from lane sharing — the practice of two or more motorcyclists riding side-by-side in the same lane.

Is Lane Splitting Legal in California?

California is one of the only states where lane splitting is legal. There is no written law in the state prohibiting the practice of lane splitting.

In 2017, California released Vehicle Code 21685.1 to clearly define and recognize lane splitting. This code seeks to ensure that motorcyclists who lane split do so safely and that other motorists know how to watch out for lane-splitting motorcyclists.

Vehicle Code 21685.1 is not an actual lane-splitting law. Because California has no definitive lane-splitting laws, police could give you a citation for unsafely engaging in the practice.

The Safety Controversy of Lane Splitting

Thirty states expressly prohibit lane splitting and lane filtering, and California is currently the only state where the practice is legally recognized. Why have other states prohibited this practice?

The lane-splitting controversy has divided the motorcycle world. Some argue that lane splitting actually makes congested traffic safer for motorcyclists, while others maintain that the practice is too risky. As a California motorcyclist, you can make the decision for yourself whether or not to participate in lane splitting.

Advantages of Lane Splitting

A study from U.C. Berkeley found that lane splitting can improve rider safety in some cases. This study reviewed 6,000 motorcycle collisions, including almost a thousand where riders were lane-splitting at the time of the crash. Significant findings from this study include:

  • Lane-splitting motorcyclists were significantly less likely to experience rear-end collisions than non-lane-splitting riders.
  • Lane-splitting riders were less likely to suffer head injuries, torso injuries, and fatal injuries in motorcycle crashes than non-lane-splitting motorcyclists.

Motorcyclists are prone to rear-end collisions in congested traffic. Drivers often stop and go suddenly in slow-moving traffic, and they sometimes do not see motorcyclists in front of them until it’s too late. Proponents of lane splitting argue that the practice protects motorcyclists from rear-end accidents. 

Lane splitting could also help ease traffic congestion by reducing the number of motorists taking up lane space. 

Disadvantages of Lane Splitting

Lane splitting is illegal in many states for a reason — it has repeatedly proved dangerous for motorcyclists. The biggest issue with lane splitting stems from the activities of other drivers. 

Drivers of passenger vehicles typically don’t expect motorcyclists to lane split. They may not watch for motorcyclists before switching lanes, shifting closer to the lane lines, or opening doors. 

When the cars in adjacent lanes are both close to the lane lines, they may not leave enough space for a motorcyclist to drive through. The motorcyclist may strike the side mirrors or scratch the side of the passenger vehicle. If the biker doesn’t have enough warning, they can become pinned between two cars. 

What If You Were Involved in a Motorcycle Accident While Lane Splitting?

If you were involved in an accident while lane splitting, the insurance company may find you at least partially liable. As with any accident, liability depends on the circumstances of the crash. 

Even though a driver may not expect you to split lanes, they still have a responsibility to check their surroundings before switching lanes or making any other unexpected movements. The driver may be at least partially liable if they:

  • Did not use a turn signal before switching lanes, preventing you from anticipating their movements
  • Would have reasonably seen you coming up behind them if they had checked their mirrors and blind spots
  • Purposefully inhibited your movement while lane splitting

On the other hand, you may be liable for the accident if you:

  • Were traveling more than 15 mph above the speed of traffic around you
  • Were acting recklessly or carelessly
  • Were riding on the shoulder, which is prohibited in California

Because California is a pure comparative negligence state, the insurance company can assign a percentage of the blame to all parties involved in an accident.

Tips for Lane Splitting Safely

The California Highway Patrol has provided several tips to improve motorcycle safety while lane splitting. Review these tips to prevent accidents:

  • Only lane split if the circumstances around you, including the width of the lanes, weather conditions, lighting conditions, and the size of surrounding vehicles, make it safe to do so.
  • Try to split between the far-left lanes instead of the right-hand lanes.
  • Wear reflective gear and bright colors to improve visibility while lane splitting.
  • Avoid lane splitting in fast-moving traffic and keep a minimum speed differential between you and other drivers.
  • Stay out of drivers’ blind spots for prolonged periods.

You can also improve your safety by encouraging your friends and family members to watch out for lane-splitting motorcyclists.

Have You Been Involved in a Lane Splitting Accident? 

The lane-splitting controversy doesn’t automatically make you liable for lane-splitting accidents. If you’ve been involved in an accident while lane splitting, contact the motorcycle accident lawyers at the Khalil Law Group today at 714-617-7870 for a free consultation.

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