What is lane splitting and how dangerous is it?

What is lane splitting and how dangerous is it?

Riding a motorcycle in slow or unmoving traffic can be frustrating. With time being wasted away while stuck in traffic, motorcycle riders tend to take advantage of their smaller vehicles and try to weave in and out of cars to keep moving forward.

While such practice seems convenient for them, doing so could come at the cost of either the rider’s or other people’s lives. With the inherent risks that come with riding motorcycles, is it really worth adding more danger to this already dangerous activity?

What is lane splitting?

Lane splitting is when a motorcycle rider drives between two cars on a multi-lane road to pass another vehicle and maneuver beside them in the same lane.

Motorcycle riders tend to lane split in situations where other vehicles have come to a stop, either because of a traffic jam or a red light. In these instances, motorcycle riders may be tempted to weave in and out of traffic to avoid the stop.

Why do riders split lanes?

There are several reasons why a motorcycle rider decides to split lanes. These include:

  • About to be late for something

A motorcycle rider who is late for whatever engagement and gets stuck in unmoving traffic may try to weave in and out of cars to keep going and hopefully get to their destination on time.

  • Being annoyed

A motorcycle rider who is frustrated with time being wasted while stuck in a traffic jam may decide to move through rows of traffic to avoid having to wait for cars to clear.

  • Riding under the influence

A motorcycle rider who is drunk or high on drugs during a ride will have a reduced level of judgment that could lead to poor decisions like making the dangerous move of moving between lanes of traffic.

  • Lack of experience

A motorcycle rider who lacks experience may wrongly believe that he has the skill required to squeeze between vehicles. However, this miscalculation and error in judgment could put the rider’s life and the life of others on the road at risk should he lost control of the motorcycle.

Is lane splitting legal?

Most states do not consider lane splitting legal but they also do not explicitly say it is prohibited. However, police and the courts often recognize lane splitting as against the law.

In California, the only state that has a law regarding lane splitting, this maneuver is allowed but only if it is done in a “safe and prudent manner.” However, this is still subject to the interpretation of the respective authorities since “safe” and “prudent” are not exactly defined.

While California is the only state where lane splitting is legal, Utah and Hawaii have legalized the modified versions of their respective legislations regarding lane splitting. In 31 states, lane splitting remains illegal.

In 12 other states—Delaware, Kentucky, Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, New Mexico, Missouri, Ohio, North Carolina, and Montana—lane splitting is neither legal or illegal.

In these states, the decision of whether to charge a motorcycle rider who is lane splitting lies in the hands of the police officer who might have witnessed the accident.

Four states—Washington, Oregon, Maryland, and Connecticut—are considering legislation regarding lane splitting. However, while these states have proposed bills on the subject, they are yet to be approved.

Who is liable for accidents caused by lane splitting?

Motorcycle riders who lane split are more prone to accidents because of their proximity to other vehicles, the reduced space to maneuver, and the fact that car drivers do not anticipate another motorist to pass between them in slowed or stopped traffic.

If an accident is caused by lane splitting, most of the time it is likely the fault of the motorcycle rider. Should the insurance company or court discover that the rider’s recklessness was a substantial cause of the accident, the rider is unlikely to receive anything if he pursues a claim for damages.

However, if the motorcycle rider can prove that it is the other driver’s fault, he might be compensated—partially or in full—for the injuries sustained and damages incurred. This could be the case if the other vehicle involved hit the rider while carelessly changing lanes, or if the driver was distracted behind the wheel. 

Moreover, the fault may also be determined depending on whether lane splitting is allowed in the state where the accident happened.

What makes lane splitting dangerous?

On a typical multi-lane road, there should be enough space for vehicles to safely travel adjacent to each other. However, the lanes are not wide enough for drivers to drift out of in heavy traffic, nor are they wide enough for motorcycle riders to safely travel between rows of traffic.

When a motorcycle rider lane-splits, there are many possible accident scenarios, like clipping a side mirror that could make the rider lose control. He could then hit other cars which can potentially lead to a crash involving multiple vehicles.

Should lane splitting occur while traffic is moving at normal speeds, the danger becomes even greater to everyone on the road for several reasons. These include:

  • Riders not visible enough

Regular car drivers do not anticipate a motorcycle rider to be traveling between lanes of traffic. If a driver wants to change lanes, he may not see the motorcycle rider until the last second. This might cause the driver to swerve into other cars and potentially begin an accident involving multiple vehicles.

When a motorcycle rider is lane splitting, a sideswipe accident is also another possibility since a rider is traveling very close to other vehicles. This risk is even more exacerbated if the motorcycle rider is in the driver’s blind spot.

  • Sudden braking

A driver who sees the motorcycle rider splitting lanes at the last minute may instinctively slam on the brakes that could cause a rear-end accident. It is quite normal for drivers to react this way, especially when they either see a motorcycle rider in the rearview mirror coming up between cars or if the rider suddenly flashes his lights.

Honking is usually a good warning to other drivers, but that sound, together with the loud noise of a motorcycle engine, can startle a driver and cause him to swerve into other vehicles.

  • Dangerous road conditions

A motorcycle rider is likely to lose control of his vehicle while lane splitting when he is doing it in bad weather. But aside from wet roads, road hazards can also pose a threat to a lane-splitting rider.

Debris, expansion joints, and oil spills could further increase the risk of lane splitting. Moreover, road surfaces are often uneven, have irregular bumps, and have manhole covers or potholes that may not be visible to a motorcycle rider who is lane splitting until it is too late.

If a motorcycle rider encounters any of these road hazards and loses control, they could easily swerve in front of or into another car.

Safety tips when lane splitting

Lane splitting is not an ideal maneuver, but should the circumstance arise that it becomes necessary, a motorcycle rider should make sure it is not prohibited in the state he is traveling in and that he splits lane safely. Here are some other tips to keep safe when lane splitting:

  • Always be conscious of the cars around you.
  • Ride with headlights on and wear reflective clothing.
  • Take precaution when entering the area where you plan to lane split. Wait until the cars in both lanes have slowed to the same speed. If one lane is moving faster, assume that the cars in that lane will suddenly switch lanes and may hit you in the process.
  • Take extra precautions when traveling in a car’s blind spot.
  • Drive at a speed slightly faster than the flow of traffic. Avoid zooming by stopped or slowly moving cars.
  • Honk if the cars get too close together. Wait until there is enough distance to safely pass between them.

The lane splitting debate

Lane splitting proponents, such as the American Motorcyclists Association (AMA), believe that when done correctly, lane splitting can be safe.

According to them, it reduces the risks of motorcycle riders rear-ending another car. They are also asserting that lane splitting will significantly reduce traffic congestion if motorcycle riders are allowed by law to pass between cars. For the AMA, traffic congestion is a great danger to motorcycle riders.

Lane splitting advocates also argue that when vehicles move slowly in a stop-and-go pattern, or if drivers are distracted and inattentive of other motorists and their surroundings, the result is congested traffic that poses a major threat to motorcycle riders who must stick to following behind cars.

However, people who are against lane splitting, particularly the police and safety organizations, disagree with the lane splitting advocates. For them, it is simple: motorcycle riders put themselves and all the drivers around them at risk of an accident every time they attempt to split lanes.