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May 23rd, 2019

May QuickThrottle Column

Living in California as a rider and a driver means getting used to "Lane Splitting" -- wherein a motorcycle rider drives between cars on the freeway or highway. It's not something I'm a fan of, and is only legal in California where it is rather prevelant. I don't do it though. Utah is about to experiment with it, Washington has had bills that seem to always fail on it, and that is the topic of this month's column....

Everyone who rides pretty much knows that California is the home of “lane-splitting”. This refers to the ability of a rider to ride between moving or stopped vehicles on a roadway. It’s not uncommon to be driving down a California freeway at 70+ mph and have a motorcycle rider come flying up between you and the car in the next lane. The first time it happens to you the shock is something akin to a heart attack. After a while though you pretty much get used to it.

And although it’s common practice in California, it still causes a lot of concern and angst for both police, drivers, and in some cases riders. I rarely if ever lane split, and only when traffic is stopped, there is plenty of room between vehicles and it’s so ungodly hot that my engine and me are ready to burst into flames at any moment. For other riders it’s just something they do every day as a matter of course. They have more guts than I do – or are less sane – or both.

The interesting thing about lane-splitting, and why it’s allowed (or tolerated if you will) in California is because up until 2017 the law didn’t explicitly prohibit it.  In every other state in the union, the law specifically prohibits lane splitting.  In California until legislation was passed in 2017, it just wasn’t explicitly prohibited, and under the rules of statutory interpretation, it was therefore allowed.  In Washington the law says: “The operator of a motorcycle shall not overtake and pass in the same lane occupied by the vehicle being overtaken.”  Other states have similar working in their vehicle codes.

While California’s code hadn’t explicitly allowed for lane splitting before, it now does allow for lane splitting -- the legislature passed a new law in 2017. It wasn’t until last year that the California Highway Patrol actually issued guidance for the practice, and it is still somewhat controversial. Many motorists hate it, and like I said, it is unsettling to be cruising down the freeway and have a biker come roaring up within inches of your side mirror when passing you. And I’m not going to debate the merits of lane-splitting, especially at high speed. I believe it’s a rider’s choice, just like whether or not to wear a helmet.

That being said, California remains an anomaly in being the only state to formally allow it. In Washington the last few years the rider groups have tried, unsuccessfully, to get the law changed to allow it like it is in California, but the legislature has always resisted. They’ve even tried some modified, very limited condition “exceptions” to allowing lane splitting – such as on a freeway at no more than 10mph faster than the surround traffic which has to be traveling less than 25mph. Even those have failed to win much legislative support.  This year a bill for limited lane splitting passed the Senate Transportation Committee on a solid 13-2 vote, but it was never voted on by the full Senate.

However, there is a bright spot on the horizon. California is no longer alone in specifically allowing for lane splitting. The Utah legislature authorized the practice this year in a few limited instances. The bill, HB 149, was passed and signed by the Governor and will go into effect on May14th. It allows for a very limited form of lane splitting, or as they call it in the Utah code, “filtering”.  The new law allows a rider to filter between cars on roads of two or more lanes in the same direction with a speed limit of 45mph or less, when the vehicle traffic is completely stopped. The rider can travel at no more than 15mph while filtering.

The proponents of the bill argued that filtering was necessary as a preventative measure to ensure safety to prevent distracted drivers from rear ending motorcycles when they come to a stop in traffic. Cars can handle being rear ended better than motorcycles can.  Allowing riders to filter to the front of the line or at least get some “protection” from a rear-end collision was worth it.  I would have to agree, having been rear-ended by a stoned pizza delivery driver on my ride in Yakima, Washington one summer while I was waiting to make a left turn.

The Utah law goes into effect later this month, so we’ll have to see how the drivers and riders adjust to the change there, but I’m optimistic for a positive result. If you are riding through Utah this summer remember that this is allowed now and test your skill. The one thing the Utah bill left out that the previous Washington bills and the California law have is a provision making it an offence for a driver to open a door or drive to impede someone who is lane splitting or filtering. We all know there will be drivers who feel entitled to open a door on a rider coming up on them in stopped traffic.

In my many years as a professional lobbyist, more often than not it made prudent sense to major changes in legislation in small “baby step” chunks. Think back to the step-by-step process Washington went through to legalize same-sex marriage for instance, starting with limited domestic partnerships and finally becoming everything but the word “marriage” and then chipping that away too.  It makes sense for the motorcycle community to tackle our major issues this way as well.

I’m glad to see our rider groups in Washington scaling back the helmet repeal as an example – limiting both age and requiring liability insurance if riding without one for instance. It makes it much more appealing for a legislator to support it. Over time it can be scaled back even further after people adjust to the new status quo. Next year let’s hope they go back to Olympia or Salem with a “Utah Model” for “filtering” as a first step in the lane-splitting effort if that’s the route they chose to go. Yes, it takes more time, but remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise won the race by going slow and steady, taking baby steps all the way to the finish line.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

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