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Lane-splitting: Are DMV and CHP in collision?

March 16, 2013|By Doug Smith
  • Riders split lanes between cars on the southbound 405 in Long Beach.
Riders split lanes between cars on the southbound 405 in Long Beach. (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles…)

In California, lane-splitting is legal. But is it safe? Until a few days ago, the California Department of Motor Vehicles said unequivocally, “No.” But, now the DMV is not so sure.

Anyone who navigated to the DMV website or picked up the free Motorcycle Handbook at a DMV office would have found a message that has appeared in the handbook since the 1980s: “Vehicles and motorcycles each need a full lane to operate safely. Lane sharing is not safe.”

It goes on to advise readers to “discourage lane sharing by others” and “keep a center position whenever drivers might be tempted to squeeze by you.”

That was quite a departure from the new message on lane-splitting issued by the California Highway Patrol last month and posted on its website.

After several years of deliberations with other state agencies and interest groups, the CHP published an unequivocal statement that the law does not prohibit lane-splitting.

It also gave guidelines for safe lane-splitting and admonished motorists that any attempt to impede a motorcycle executing that procedure is a crime. One reason for the guidelines was to clear up the widespread confusion about whether it’s legal for a motorcycle to pass between cars in slow-moving traffic.

So it was a surprise when my colleague David Colker, also a motorcycle rider, returned from a trip to the DMV with a Motorcycle Handbook that appeared to state that the CHP was condoning a practice the DMV considers unsafe.

I called the DMV, expecting to discover an unremarkable case of the right hand of government not knowing what the left hand is doing. But after making me wait several days, DMV information officer Jessica Gonzalez sent a brief email informing me that the Motorcycle Handbook had been updated.

“DMV and CHP have the same position,” the message said.

And, after reading the new Handbook, I’m not sure the two agencies’ positions are exactly the same.

The handbook now says, “Lane splitting should not be performed by inexperienced riders,” and gives several safety tips echoing the CHP guidelines but never acknowledging that the practice is legal.

That’s not a rousing endorsement of the finding in some recent research by accident analyst James V. Ouellet concluding that it’s safer for a motorcyclist to split lanes on the freeway than not.

Ouellet concedes that his research is not definitive, owing to the age and small size of his data, which were collected in the 1970s and consist of only 900 accidents.

A more robust study is underway at UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research & Education Center. The CHP is working with Research Epidemiologist Tom Rice to document the circumstances of every motorcycle accident it investigates over a year. The data collection is almost done. Rice said he expects to have findings by summer or fall that may once and for all answer the question, “Is lane-splitting safe?”

Meanwhile, anyone dropping into a DMV office for the next few months to pick up the official California Motorcycle Handbook will still get the old story. The 2013 version of the handbook with the new language is expected to be available in April.


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