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California Becomes First State To Allow Lane Splitting For Motorcyclists

motorcycle riding in the street

California becomes the first state in the union to define rules for cars and motorcycles to share the road with the passage of a bold new law set to go into effect on January 1, 2017.  Los Angeles motorcycle accident attorneys at the Salamati Firm say the passage of AB 51 can be an incredible asset to a personal injury lawsuit, but does not necessarily guarantee safety for motorcyclists or motorists.

Old California lane splitting rules

Lane splitting is a practice where motorcycles pass other vehicles moving in the same direction, within the same lane. Though it has been used by motorcyclists as a way to lessen congestion and help them maneuver out of harm’s way for decades, there has been no law explicitly allowing or prohibiting it. According to the OC Register, lane splitting sparks contention among some motorists, who say “it is reckless and burdens them to be on guard.”

Prior to August 19th 2016, California lane splitting rules were more like informal guidelines, asking that drivers and cyclists practice “common-sense traffic safety”. The law recommended that riders wear protective gear, abstain from intoxicating substances, avoid blind spots, and “ride responsibly,” within the designated speed limit. Motorists were expected to “stay alert” and use common courtesy on the road, allowing motorcycles to pass.

The publication of guidelines for safe lane splitting on the California Highway Patrol website in 2012 sparked a formal complaint from an individual who said there was no regulatory basis for the recommendations, calling them “underground regulations.” For a time, the CHP removed the guidelines from its website and curtailed their educational outreach campaigns, but they have resurfaced in a formal new bill.

New California lane splitting laws

The new California lane splitting law is still in the process of being drafted, but it will give the California Highway Patrol the authority to create laws on lane splitting. They also agreed to consult the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Transportation, the Office of Traffic Safety, and a motorcyclist safety organization to draft the legislation.

The previously published CHP guidelines stated:

  • Lane splitting by motorcyclists is not illegal in California when done in a safe and prudent manner.
  • Motorists should not take it upon themselves to discourage motorcyclists from lane splitting.
  • Intentionally blocking or impeding a motorcyclist in a way that could cause harm to the rider is illegal.
  • Opening a vehicle door to impede a motorcycle is illegal.

They reminded drivers to avoid driving distracted, check mirrors and blind spots, signal before merging or changing lanes, and allowing 3-4 seconds of following distance when trailing a motorcycle rider.

Additional guidelines in the new California lane splitting law are expected to include:

  • The maximum speed motorcyclists are allowed to travel when lane-splitting is 30 mph.
  • The maximum speed motorcyclists can travel when lane-splitting in heavy traffic is 10 mph faster.
  • Lane splitting is safest in the furthest left lane, away from ramps or exits, and not around other lane splitters.

Furthermore, authorities say, it is not safe to lane split when:

  • There is no room to fit due to narrow lanes or wide motor vehicles like trucks, buses and RVs.
  • Dangerous road conditions exist like water, grit, construction, slippery pavement, metal grates, etc.
  • There is a blocked view and no visible way to get out of the space.
  • The road is curved.
  • Cyclists are not fully alert, aware and comfortable with the surroundings.

The more specific recommendations are based upon a 2015 study out of UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center. The OC Register says that an earlier version of AB51 would have prohibited lane-splitting above 50 mph or more than 15 mph faster than traffic, but the CHP struck these details from the bill because they wanted to comprehensively study what will work best. At its heart, the law will clarify to motorists that “lane-splitting is legal”, and serve as a reminder to motorcyclists “not to go too fast.”

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California motorcycle accident lawyer

Formally defining lane splitting guidelines is a good step toward improved traffic safety in California. Motorcyclists who lane-split will be viewed as acting in accordance with the law, rather than brazen outlaws. Ideally, motorists will allow a little more time and space for these exchanges to take place. Unfortunately, laws cannot create perfect conditions for every situation and every driver. When accidents occur, the lawyers at the Salamati Firm will find an easier time assigning fault and pointing to areas of negligence with these laws more clearly defined.

Additional CA lane splitting resources:

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