Californians are strong proponents of lane splitting. Traffic congestion is eased and motorcyclists protect themselves from being involved in collisions by distracted drivers when they lane split safely. Until just recently, California law was vague as to the legality of motorcycle lane-splitting. The only real law that could arguably cover motorcycle lane splitting was California Vehicle Code Section 21658, which states in it’s pertinent part: “When a roadway is divided into two or more lanes going in the same direction, all vehicles must be driven as nearly as practical entirely within a single lane.” The CHP interpreted this vehicle code as neither prohibiting nor authorizing motorcycle lane-splitting. So it was really great news when California Bill AB 51 was passed on August 19, 2016 which legalized lane splitting by giving it a clear set of rules for riders to follow. Equally important was educating the public about lane splitting.
The new law is as follows:
(1) Defines “lane splitting” as driving a motorcycle between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane, including on both divided and undivided streets, roads or highways;
(2) Authorizes the CHP to develop educational guidelines on lane splitting to help ensure the safety of motorcyclists as well as drivers and passengers of surrounding vehicles;
(3) Requires that the CHP, in developing the guidelines, to consult with agencies and organizations with an interest in road safety and motorcycle behavior, including but not limited to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Caltrans, the Office of Traffic Safety, and a motorcycle organization focused on motorcycle safety. The new law has many positives, including reducing traffic congestion and the promotion of safety. The law doesn’t state what is permitted, but authorizes the CHP to create educational guidelines related to safe lane-splitting. The CHP has yet to issue guidelines, but the past CHP publications might be a good indication of what’s to come. More information about AB 51 will be available in 2017 when details of the new legislation are further clarified and defined. AB 51 makes California the first state to legalize motorcycle lane-splitting and it is likely that other states will follow in California’s footsteps.
One of my recent cases involved a motorcyclist who had been safely lane-splitting between the HOV lane and the fast lane for approximately 3 miles without interruption. The motorcyclist was traveling at approximately 30 miles per hour, 5 miles per hour faster than the traffic on either side of him. Suddenly, the defendant driver changed lanes from the HOV lane to the fast lane and struck the motorcyclist dead on because he didn’t see him lane-splitting. The motorcyclist sustained life changing catastrophic injuries as a result of the collision.
What was the defendant driver’s defense? He claimed the motorcyclist was traveling illegally by lane-splitting and had no business splitting lanes. WRONG. Unfortunately, this was not an uncommon allegation coming from a driver of a motor vehicle. Lane-splitting enrages many motor vehicle drivers who believe that it is inherently dangerous and done solely for the purpose of an unfair way to get ahead of traffic. The defendant’s allegations that my client, the motorcyclist, caused the accident by lane-splitting would fail 10 out of 10 times in a court of law, and they failed here too. My client was found not to be at fault because he was lane-splitting safely and had every right to do so. It was determined that the defendant motorist caused this accident by making an unsafe lane change and not being observant of the surrounding traffic.
The message for motor vehicle drivers as to lane splitting in California is as follows:
- Lane splitting is legal in California!
- Motorists should not discourage motorcyclists from lane splitting
- Intentionally blocking or impeding a motorcyclist in a way that could cause harm to the motorcyclist is illegal per California Vehicle Code Section 22400
- Opening a vehicle door to impede a motorcyclist is illegal per California Vehicle Code Section 22517
- Never drive while distracted Always be aware of the traffic around you
Safe motorcycle lane-splitting is legal. However, you should not lane- split when:
- You can’t fit
- At a toll booth
- If traffic is moving too fast or unpredictably
- If dangerous road conditions exist
- Don’t lane-split between trucks, buses, RV’s and other wide vehicles
- Around or through curves
- If you are unable to react to changing conditions instantaneously
- If you don’t feel comfortable with the situation
And remember, even though lane- splitting has been legalized in California, you can still be ticketed-not for the act itself-but for doing so in an unsafe manner-like speeding.
Susan Handel is a lawyer who specializes in personal injury law, with an emphasis on motorcycle accidents resulting in catastrophic injuries and fatalities. For more information visit her on the web at www.handellaw.com or call Toll Free Nationwide 800.564.1164.