CA Lane-Splitting Bill Moves Forward

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Split Opinions

Lane-splitting may be formally legalized in California: a bill to sanction motorcycle lane-splitting in California has come closer to a vote, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The State Assembly Bill (AB 51), proposed by Assembly member Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), outlines regulations for lane-splitting. Lane-splitting, for those who are unfamiliar, is when a motorcyclist passes other vehicles on the road by squeezing between them through the dividing lane. It is a controversial, often contentious issue debated among motorcycle riders and motorists alike.

Prior to last year, lane-splitting, though neither legal nor illegal, was allowed on the state’s roads. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) had published guidelines for the practice. Last year, however, CHP removed its guidelines after complaints that it should not have the power to create public policy.

If passed, the bill would give the CHP authority to publish a guideline. Recently, the Senate Transportation Committee unanimously supported the bill. Next, it will go to the Appropriations Committee, which will evaluate the bill’s financial impact. If it gets past that committee, state senators would vote to pass the bill. Following that vote (if it gets voted yes), the final step would be approval by the state assembly.

The bill is in its second iteration. Hot debate about the language in the first version incentivized the lawmakers to defer responsibility for the specifics of the policy back to the CHP if the bill were to be passed into law.

Why is lane-splitting so controversial?

Lane-splitting can be a huge time saver for motorcyclists, particularly during peak traffic hours because they can weave their bikes through the road. Many bikers praise the riding technique for lessening their carbon emissions as well as their commute times.  Many drivers, however, disparage lane-splitting, citing visibility and blind spots as safety liabilities.

Lane-splitting brings motorcyclists in closer-than-usual proximity with cars, which decreases the reaction time of the riders and drivers in the event of an accident. A considerable risk comes from drivers changing lanes without seeing lane-splitting motorcyclists in the road. Proponents of lane-splitting, however, say it is safer for motorcyclists to ride between cars than to be bottle-necked with them in traffic, which they claim increases the risk of rear-ending accidents.

A study published by UC Berkeley about lane-splitting and motorcycle safety in 2015 demystifies the narratives of the practice by looking at data. The study’s researchers¬† looked at 5,969 motorcycle collisions in California. The study found that 997 of the accidents (17%) happened when the rider involved was lane-splitting. Lane-splitters tended to be safety-conscious. The researchers found that lane-splitting motorcyclists rode more often and during commute hours than other motorcyclists. Lane-splitters tended to use better helmets and more safety gear. Lane-splitters were also less likely to drink and drive.

Significantly, the researchers involved in the study found a correlation between the speed differential between lane-splitters and automobile drivers with the rate and severity of accidents. From the study:

We found that motorcycle speed differential is a stronger predictor of injury than was the overall traffic speed. Speed differentials of up to 15 MPHwere not associated with changes in injury occurrence; above that point, increases in speed differential were associated with increases in the likelihood of injury of each type.

Which lane are you in?

If AB51 does pass, then the CHP will have the ability to regulate the terms of lane-splitting restored to it. That lane-splitting inspires such contentious disagreement seems to be in part due to matters of perception. The bill’s predecessor got discarded because supporters and detractors alike could not agree on its language. Previously, the bill stated that lane-splitting would be permissible at a 15 mph differential from traffic, with a maximum speed at 50 miles per hour. (Essentially, the language would allow lane-splitting on roads with speed limits of around 35 miler per hour or on crowded, traffic-laden freeways.)

Lane-splitting advocates decried the (would-be) restrictions, while the anti-lane-splitting faction opposes any legalization. The current bill has support from motorcycling groups as well as law enforcement agencies.

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