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Traffic jam? Time to split

Lane-splitting -- riding between lanes -- is legal for motorcyclists, but some other motorists find it irritating.

August 04, 2007|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

For most motorists, a commute on a weekday afternoon from Signal Hill in Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles means a 45-minute crawl through stalled traffic and relentless heat.

But for motorcyclists Shear'Ree, 57, and Mark Russell, 17, the trip is a breezy 25-minute jaunt on the 405 and 110 freeways.

The reason?

Shear'Ree and Russell, who ride Kawasaki Ninja motorcycles, are lane-splitters -- bikers who prefer to drive between lanes. For them, it's a way of life and a perk of owning two wheels instead of four in a region crammed with bulky, gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Although maneuvering between lanes of traffic can be dangerous, motorists are often surprised to learn that lane splitting is legal in California, the only state in which this is true.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Lane splitters: An article in Saturday's California section about lane-splitting motorcyclists identified one motorcycle as a Honda CVR 600. It was a Honda CBR 600.

There are many rationales for lane-splitting: Some motorcyclists do it to evade traffic or to conserve gas and lower emissions; others say they're helping to ease congestion or keeping their air-cooled bikes from overheating.

But almost all lane-splitting bikers say that the strip between lanes is far more secure than the "sandwich zone" between bumpers. Bikers also said they can better anticipate accidents by lane-splitting.

"Research indicates that if you're tucked in behind a vehicle on a bike, you can't see what's in front of you," said Harry Hurt, professor emeritus of safety science at USC, who researches motorcycle accidents. "It's better to be in between cars laterally."

Some drivers who see a motorcyclist approaching between lanes will ease away from the line to let the biker pass.

But motorcyclists say that many others, who assume the maneuver is illegal, react in frustration. Some tell stories of being trailed or blocked by angry drivers. "When I'm cutting traffic, all of a sudden a car will come over and try to block me," Russell said. "They think it's unfair that I'm splitting and will get mad."

Some motorists see the lane-splitters as overly aggressive and reckless, often veering close to their vehicles, occasionally clipping off a mirror or bumper.

"It's kind of annoying because you're sitting there in traffic and sometimes they come out of nowhere within inches of your car," said Canoga Park resident German Landeros, who drives a Dodge Charger. "They startle you -- it might prompt somebody to slam on their brakes and cause a bigger accident."

Because lane-splitting is not a code violation, the California Highway Patrol does not track it as a factor in motorcycle accidents.

But according to the state Office of Traffic Safety, there were 397 motorcyclist injuries and fatalities out of 9,472 incidents in 2005 resulting from bikers making unsafe lane changes, passing improperly or following another vehicle too closely, all characteristics associated with lane-splitting.

CHP officers often cite motorcyclists who split lanes while weaving and speeding, said Sgt. Mark Garrett of the CHP's Southern Division. Less tolerant officers also will cite motorcyclists for crossing the double yellow line between the carpool and fast lanes.

Garrett said CHP officers tend to leave lane-splitters alone as long as they do not impede traffic flow. "We're not looking to fight someone who's safely splitting," he said. Still, lane-sharing is not for everyone.

For those who ride choppers and large cruisers, the narrow lanes of the 405 Freeway can be navigational nightmares. Their bikes' extended handlebars and saddlebags are more likely to scrape passing cars.

"It's a riskier than average activity," said Ray Oches, director of training for the California Motorcyclist Safety Program. "But if you manage that risk well, you can be successful."

Some lane-splitters acknowledge freeway maneuvering can be dangerous.

Whittier resident George Gonzalez, 25, said he used to split lanes on his Honda CVR 600 sport bike but stopped after he narrowly avoided three accidents. Now, Gonzalez mostly drives his Chevy truck.

"Lane-splitters drive crazier and they're less careful," Gonzalez said. "They might see you in your car, but most will just cut you off anyway."

Indeed, bikers can be their own worst enemies. Of the 411 California motorcyclist deaths in 2005, 71% were the biker's fault, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety. Also, 58% of injuries were caused by the motorcyclists. (The state's Fatality Analysis Reporting System tallied 469 motorcycle fatalities in 2005; the CHP reported 404.)

"It's easy to go down on a bike," said the CHP's Garrett. "While lane-splitting, you're a very small target inside those car mirrors."

For motorcyclist Lyle Ausk, an assets protection manager for Target, it's the legions of preoccupied and irritated drivers who are the most constant threat to lane-splitting bikers. Several months ago, Ausk said, he was riding to Corona when a driver saw him splitting a lane and intentionally swerved toward him.

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