Monday, October 31, 2016




          You’re sitting in a traffic jam on one of California’s busiest freeways – perhaps I-5 in northern San Diego County or I-10 in Los Angeles or the U.S. 101 Bayshore Freeway south of San Francisco – listening to classical music to calm jangled nerves or just thinking. Maybe you’re not stopped, but merely crawling along in a slow-and-go.

          Suddenly you hear an ear-splitting roar from behind and a motorcycle rips past with leather-clad rider and mere inches between your car and the rider’s bike.

          The noise quickly dies down as the rider moves ahead, and you are left to muse: What if you’d twitched to that side or started into a lane change? Would that rider have splatted onto the pavement? Were you inches from a serious accident?

          Never mind your feelings at that moment, or those of many others. What that motorcycle rider did, known as lane-splitting or lane sharing, will become perfectly legal in California – and nowhere else in America – on Jan. 1.

          The reason: a UC Berkeley study that concluded in the spring of 2014 that motorcyclists are actually safer if they lane-split than if they sit in traffic, waiting out jams alongside the cars and trucks with which they share freeways and other roadways.

          As counterintuitive as it may seem, they are far less likely to be sideswiped while speeding between stalled lanes of traffic than if they’d gotten in line behind the cars and trucks and risked getting rear-ended, often a far more injurious event for a motorcyclist than for the driver of a larger vehicle.

          Said Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey of Palmdale, a retired California Highway Patrol sergeant and co-author of the new law, “This is a huge win for roadway safety. We are now giving riders and motorists clear guidance on when it is safe.”

          That specific guidance has not yet come, but rules will be handed down by the CHP and, presumably, widely publicized before the law takes effect. As originally written, the law legalized lane-splitting only when a motorcycle is going less than 15 mph faster than other traffic and forbade the tactic at speeds over 50 mph. Those specifics went out the window when motorcycling groups suggested the speeds were too tame, legislators preferring to leave the tough decisions to CHP experts rather than risk offending anyone who might someday vote against them.

          Previously, lane-splitting was a gray area, neither legal nor illegal, but riders were rarely cited. The CHP notes that driving dangerously – as determined by its officers – is always illegal.

          The idea of legalizing what many consider a disruptive, dangerous practice began with that Berkeley study, which examined motorcycle accidents statewide between June 2012 and August 2013.

          The researchers, led by Thomas Rice of Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research & Education Center, studied 5,969 collisions, of which 997 involved lane-splitting. Lane-splitting riders were more likely to be traveling on weekends, rather than weekdays, and were less likely than others to have used alcohol or carried a passenger.

          They suffered fewer head injuries than other motorcycle riders involved in accidents and were only one-third as likely to suffer fatal injuries.

          Only when lane-splitters went over 50 mph did injury incidence among them reach the same levels as for motorcyclists injured in normal traffic patterns.

          This is about what long-time motorcyclists expected intuitively. Wayne Allard, vice president of the American Motorcyclist Assn., noted that lane-splitting cuts motorcylists’ exposure to distracted drivers in stop-and-start situations. “Reducing a motorcyclist’s exposure to vehicles that are…accelerating or decelerating on congested roadways can reduce rear-end collisions for those most vulnerable in traffic.”

          In short, a single study from one academic center has now produced a major change in California highway rules, with little or no consideration for the majority of drivers, who are in cars, not on cycles. The new rules may not be specific yet, but don’t expect to see many lane-splitters ticketed in the near future. For unless they are being obviously reckless, their seemingly risky practice has been legalized.

          Which means other motorists can expect more and more loud, flinch-inducing moments that just might translate into better highway safety. Or the reverse. Only time will tell how that works out.
     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to

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