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Tips for Splitting Lanes

90% of people in traffic are paying little attention. And that is the way I like it. For a lane splitter, the best thing a car can do is do nothing at all. Sure, I appreciate those other 9% of drivers that actually are paying attention and move aside for me, but occasionally you freak me out with your overzealous attempt to get out of my way. For those who actually steer into the median, so that I may have a half of a lane to pass, please don't. You are kicking up dust and dirt and things I don't want either of us to be driving over. When a driver notices a motorcyclist approaching from the rear, please move to the middle of the lane. I don't need much space.

And what about the last 1%? The third type of drivers in traffic are drivers who are paying attention, but don't want you to pass them. They could have been cut off earlier, been chewed out at the office, or just need to get home and anybody who is not "waiting in line" like the rest of the drivers should be stopped. Most of these drivers are not homicidal and won't open their doors, or turn into as you pass. They see you coming and slowly move over to block your path. If you get one of these drivers next to a big rig or two next to each other, you might have to wait a bit. The best thing to do is sit it out until there is space to pass and carry on. Hand gestures could turn a combustible situation into road rage and in those cases motorcyclists are at a disadvantage.


Splitting Lanes 101

A short video pointing out the dangers of splitting lanes.
Here are some areas to be aware of when splitting lanes:

Take it from a scout: Be Prepared
They teach you in the Motorcycle Safety Course not to cover the brake when riding. That may be good advice for the open road but when you are threading the needle between goliath vehicles you need every bit of reaction time you can get. Covering the brake with your index and middle finger while gripping the throttle with the other three may save you a half second when you need to stop.

Caginess
Watch out for areas where the cagers get "cagey". This includes where freeways merge, on/off ramps, where traffic starts to slow down or pick up. Slow down in these areas, because it is inevitable that a car will cut you off.

Traffic Density
Traffic Density is how close together the cars are packed. Generally as speed increases, traffic density decreases, but not always. The reason this is important to riders who split lanes is the effect it has on the drivers of the cars. As traffic density increases, the more alert a driver has to be to change lanes. And an alert driver is more likely to see you.

Use the cars for safety
You are most likely to get "squeezed" when one car is in the blind spot of another. Try to wait until the two cars are abreast of each other, or wait until you can pass normally. Drivers are more aware of the cars around them and less likely to turn into you.

Mirrors
Most passenger cars, with the exception of low sports cars and jacked-up trucks, have mirrors that are at the same level as your mirrors and handlebars. Since they stick out further than any other part of the car they are usually the part that gets hit in a collision. Take note of mirrors as you approach, first for placement, and then look at the driverís eyes. You can get a lot of information by looking at the driver through the mirror and can get valuable clues to what their intentions are.

Lane Speed Differential
The best scenario for splitting lanes is when the lanes you are splitting are going the same speed. If one lane is moving faster than another there will be a lot of drivers in the slower lane trying to get into the faster lane; usually right when you get to them. When the lanes are going the same speed there are two ways for the traffic to line up. Either the cars are driving abreast of each other or they are staggered. While it may be easier to pass while the cars are staggered, it is more dangerous, since the drivers may not know you are there and could change lanes. When they are abreast, the drivers will not change lanes into the car next to them.

Space
Cars with a lot of space in front of them are bad news. Best case is that they are not paying attention to the road and that is bad news for you. Worst case is they are waiting for a gap to change lanes and that is inevitably right when you are next to them. It is not over once you pass them. Watch out for cars changing into the open space in front of the slow car.

Trucks
Any articulated vehicle is cause to slow down when splitting lanes. When traveling in a straight line the rear end of a trailer has the tendency to bounce around from side to side, usually right when you are passing it. On corners it is can be trickier. Since the rear wheels will take a tighter track than the front ones in a turn, many big rig drivers compensate by shifting to the outside of their lane. This means that when on the outside of a truck, you will find what was plenty of room to pass can quickly turn into a tight predicament when nearing the cab. If you are passing on the inside of a turn, you will find that the space will increase once you pass the rear wheels of the trailer, but beware, if you have to stop and the truck is still moving, get away from the trailer because those rear wheels may come back and hit you.

Thin is in but fat is that
While skinny bikes are good for splitting lanes, a big cruiser with loud pipes helps to alert drivers ahead of you. Don't rely on loud pipes though, many high price cars have excellent noise insulation.

Check out the Lane Splitting discussion.


  Comments

I was recently in France for work and while driving I witnessed "lane splitting" on a routine basis. I did not see any close call and traffics flowed fine. I talked to several rider while in France and they informed me that "lane splitting" was a way of life for the rider. It keeps traffic flowing and they felt it was not an issue. Almost all of the drivers that I encountered were very aware of the riders and there seemed to be no problem with the "Lane Splitting". I have been riding for 30 years and have split lanes in Texas and really have had no issues with this. I am for anything that will keep the traffic flowing and in France this is one thing that really helps out.
- Jerry

Good article and comments regarding lane splitting, or "including" as my buddy Vic calles it. I am going to court 10/24/05 to fight a ticket for lane splitting between HOV and #1 lane, CHP-y said that I cannot cross double yellow to lane split, ergo, must not lane split between these two lanes. For obvious reasons this is the safest place to split traffic so I'm fighting. Any advice would be appreciated.
- Michael

I've been riding motorcycles off and on [mostly on] for the last 13 years here in So. Cal. and before they changed their verbage to "safe and prudent" [no, I don't think they could be more vague if they tried - which I also think works to their advantage. It gives them a lot more freedom to do as they please, but I digress] The "guidelines" were that you could split the lanes and travel no more than 10 mph. faster than the rate of traffic, up to the speed limit. This topic is of particular interest to me as I was just ticketed recently for crossing the double yellow while splitting the carpool lane. Per the CHP officer that I spoke with in Sacramento, CA. There is currently no vehicle code that specifically speaks of lane splitting. It is that fact that makes it "permissible" because there is nothing actually prohibiting it. I also wanted to commend you on your article. I also think it is dead on as one of your other readers commented. I too have had very few incidents and even fairly few close calls which I attribute to being a conscientious rider as opposed to one of the organ donors that throw caution to the wind. To those of you that don't live in CA and don't have the privilege of lane splitting [b.t.w. at the time I am writing this, CA is the only state in the nation where lane splitting is legal, I know Texas is working on it, but they're not there yet.] I can sort of understand your trepidation at the thought of splitting the lanes, but for anyone that would normally spend an hour or more during your commute... you don't know what you're missing. It cuts my commute in half. Anyway there's my two cents worth. Thanks for the info. in your article.
- Chris

I've been lane splitting daily in Tokyo traffic for about 7 years now, and I'd say your article is dead on. (Of course I would change "right" to "left" and such.)
I would guess that the commenter who didn't understand the reasons for lane-splitting has never been caught in serious congestion. In Tokyo it generally takes half the time to get anywhere by bike that it does by car, and that's even if you don't take any serious risks. If you stay aware of your surroundings and of your own limitations, it's not really that dangerous.
- Big Ben aka Gaijin Biker

Great ariticle. I split lanes all my life and feel it is the safest way to commute. Drivers have a tendency to rear end each other a great deal in So. CA. Put a bike between 2 cars during a rear end collision you will probably die. Risking a busted mirror or bruised knuckle is nothing campared to my life.
- Ron H.

I am all for motorcycling freedom, but I cannot for the life of me understand why any rider would want to split lanes. It is dangerous (maybe even illegal) and there is no special power granted to motorcyclists or motorcycles over any other vehicles on the road.

You have already mentioned in your article that 90% of cagers aren't aware of what is happening around them. Why then tempt fate by slipping past them on the hughway, which is so likely to cause those drivers to overreact and "move away from the biker".

I know my comments are not popular with many other bikers out there but I serious do not see ANY reason not to stay in my lane or carefully switch full lanes if I feel the need to.

Your article mentioned "Covering the brake with your index and middle finger while gripping the throttle with the other three may save you a half second when you need to stop." To that I say why place yourself in a riding situation in which a split second is needed to improve your level of safety? Instead, why not give yourself every advantage so that you have a full second or even a few seconds to react (i.e.: riding in your chosen half of the full lane)?

For the record, I ride a large cruiser in New York and I NEVER EVER split lanes. I simply ride as safely as I can and I do everything that I can to shift the odds in my favor. This includes riding a large 1,300 cc bike, (10) 6" LED strips on my saddlebag rails, a headlight modulator, driving lights on even during the daytime, two Wig Wag units that pulsate my taillight and all the LED strips when the brakes are applied, and 138 db dual trumpet air horns.
- Kevin F.

Can you provide some more information on how long you've been riding and lane splitting, how often you commute on your bike, distance, amount of freeway mileage? I assume you are in CA. Do you often feel threatened? Are there close calls often? We're trying to get a feel on whether this is something that will benefit riders in Colorado. Thanks!
- Tony W.

Thanks for the response Tony, I think I can answer all of your questions.

I have been riding motorcycles for about 5 years now, ever since I graduated college. I was a purely recreational rider for the first year. I would ride weekends and vacations only. Then I got a different job; in the city where traffic and parking were a problem for my truck, so I started commuting by bike. I started splitting lanes almost immediately. With my rain gear and a mild Northern California climate I can ride year-round so I commute almost every day. The week between Christmas and New Years I drove the Civic because traffic was light and the storms were pretty bad but other than that I probably drive to work less than once a month. It is 23 miles door to door from Oakland to San Bruno with about 22 of those miles being on the freeway. The bonus is that I can ride in the carpool lane up to the Bay Bridge. It ends at the toll plaza so I am splitting after that. I don't feel threatened (targeted aggression towards me) any more than when you are riding on the open road, but I do get scared when someone does something stupid and that includes me sometimes. I have close calls on average about once a week. It seems to gang up 2 or 3 all on the same day. Then I go two weeks without an incident. A close call for me is when I have to panic stop or change lanes without proper preparation. 99% of the time is a lazy driver not taking the proper actions before changing lanes. Only one percent of the time is someone actively trying to block your path. Even then if the guy next to them is in the middle of the lane you can get by. The rational is that if they have to sit in this traffic you should too. It is hard to say if it is worth it. For most responsible people it is a serious time saving activity, but the unfortunate few to get "squished" would probably say otherwise. I have calculated that in 4 years I have saved 2 whole months of commuting. My commute is 30 minutes as opposed to an hour in the car. Here is an inceident where lane splitting went bad.
- James - WhyBike.com

Thanks, James-

I commute about 40 miles each way as much of the year as possible in the Denver metro area and have very infrequent close calls or interactions with over-aggressive motorists. That story about the Honda and BMW was pretty scary, but fortunately everyone came out alive and more or less intact.

You surprised me in describing the speeds that you and others out there use while lane splitting. The impression most people have about when its safe and the rule of thumb that I've heard a lot is the 5-15 mph faster than traffic, and generally only when traffic is just about standing still. If we get close to modifying the statute out here, I'm sure we'll need language regulating speed that's stronger than California's "safe and prudent manner".

By coincidence I was stopped this morning my the highway patrol (clocked at 86 in a 70, and I knew I was going much faster than that). Happily he let me off with a warning, but I had to ask about his take on lane splitting out here. His biggest concern was lane splitting at high speed, although he said he would ticket lane splitters staying in the low speed range.

Indications, from browsing blogs from around the country, are that lane splitting happens almost everywhere, even if done illegally. In many areas it's not an enforced offense unless the rider is deemed to be riding recklessly. I'll continue collecting information like yours to have available for legislators out here concerned with safety issues. Who knows? In a year or 2 we may get is legalized out here.

Thanks for your response- It was great!
- Tony W.


Chris, your comments were informative. I was surprised to learn that CA is the only state that allows splitting lanes. Bummer about the ticket. You didn't say if it was a motorcycle cop who gave you the ticket. Most of the cops on bikes I've encountered in CA are pretty cool. One time I was waiting behind a truck that was so wide it would have forced me to cross over the double yellow to pass it when a motorcycle cop came rolling past me and wave me on as if to follow him past it. As for the gentleman from NY, apparently it is illegal where you are, but I can't imagine not splitting lanes. My commute to work is 50 miles each way (average speed, for the math handicapped, 24 mph). By car it usually takes me around 4 hours round trip even when I time my commute to avoid the worst traffic. By bike with splitting lanes and riding in the carpool lane, which is also leagal in CA, it takes me about an hour each way. The tips presented in this article are sound. I would add just one: If you are splitting lanes and you see a bike approaching from behind, pull out at the first SAFE opportunity and let him pass. Its not only courteous, it keeps you from having to worry about him ramming you from behind if you have to stop suddenly. For the lane-splitter coming from behind, be patient and leave enough room between you and the bike in front. Keep in mind he is probably entirely focused on the cars in front of and around him not on his rear-view mirrors.
- Steve


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