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Guidelines and Legality of Lane Splitting

If you drive a motorcycle or are obtaining a motorcycle license, here's a look at where lane splitting is legal and the guidelines for performing lane splitting safely.

Introduction to Lane Splitting

One of the most confusing aspects of driving a motorcycle is understanding lane splitting and when it is acceptable to do it. Lane splitting is a term that refers specifically to motorcycles as well as similar two-wheeled vehicles and is something that every driver should understand before operating a motorcycle in order to stay safe and avoid any trouble with the law. In essence, lane splitting occurs when a motorcycle moves in between two separate vehicle lanes in order to pass the cars ahead. These lanes will be moving forward in the same direction as the motorcycle.

Although many countries outside of the United States allow lane splitting, it is still largely illegal in America. The primary reason that it is not permitted in many states is due mainly to the fact that safety is considered to be a major issue when lane splitting, particularly with the possibility of vehicle doors opening and hitting the motorcycle and its driver as well as other types of vehicles suddenly changing lanes. While it is possible that lane splitting will become legal in all states eventually, there are no current bills being proposed at the federal level to allow lane splitting across the country.

States That Allow Lane Splitting

When looking at the states in which lane splitting is legal, there are four specific terms that you will need to be aware of. These terms are Authorized, Not Authorized, Prohibited and Not Referenced. Overall, California is the only state that has fully stated that lane splitting is completely legal. This was put into law by the California Highway Patrol, or CHP. On the other end of the spectrum, Oregon is the only state in which lane splitting is explicitly illegal. Motorcycle drivers in Arkansas will find that lane splitting is not referenced and therefore not technically illegal.

Every other state lies in a murky middle ground wherein lane splitting is not explicitly illegal but is instead considered to be non-authorized. This means that while not fully prohibited, you will be cited by a police officer on most occasions when caught lane splitting. In some non-authorized states, such as Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado, you can be cited by police officers if you are caught employing lane splitting tactics while driving on a motorcycle, except in the case where lane splitting occurs when motorcycles are riding two abreast.

Guidelines for Lane Splitting

Despite the fact that the California Highway Patrol removed the guidelines they had placed online that had focused on the proper precautions to take when lane splitting, these guidelines are essential for anyone driving a motorcycle in California. Being unaware of these guidelines can put you in a risky situation where you aren't sure of how to properly react when lane splitting. Thankfully, these guidelines haven't been lost forever. Here's a look at some of the primary guidelines as stated by the CHP:

  1. Travel at a speed that is no more than 10 MPH faster than other traffic -- danger increases at higher speed differentials.

  2. It is not advisable to lane split when traffic flow is at 30 MPH or faster -- danger increases as overall speed increases.

  3. Typically, it is safer to split between the #1 and #2 lanes than between other lanes.

  4. Consider the total environment in which you are splitting, including the width of the lanes, size of surrounding vehicles as well as roadway, weather and lighting conditions.

  5. Be alert and anticipate possible movements by other road users.

The CHP has also created the three R's of lane splitting, which are as follows:

  • Reasonable means not more than 10 MPH faster than traffic flow and not over 39 MPH.

  • You are Responsible for your own safety and decisions. Don't put yourself in dangerous positions, and if you can't fit, don't split.

  • It's important to be Respectful to other drivers. You are sharing the road with others, which is why you need to show them the same courtesy you would expect them to show you. Don't believe that a motorcycle’s loud pipes are enough to warn other drivers of your presence, when in fact that very loudness can easily startle them, resulting in erratic behavior. Heavy traffic can make for dangerous situations that are brought about by drivers who are distracted, poor weather conditions, upcoming curves and even large trucks.

In order to ensure that motorcyclists keep other drivers safe, the CHP has provided a list of moments when it is not advisable to lane split.

  • If there's little space

  • If traffic is going forward at exceedingly high speeds

  • If you face unpredictable conditions on the road, such as in the examples mentioned previously

  • If you are unsure of how to make it out of the space you're entering

  • When the road consists of wider vehicles

  • When traveling around curves

  • If you aren't sure of what your surroundings consist of

  • If you do not have the capacity to react instantaneously

  • If you are uncomfortable with the potential situation.

Remember, Safety First!

While the guidelines stated and published by the California Highway Patrol are designed to provide safety when lane splitting for both the rider of the motorcycle and the drivers of other vehicles, it's important to understand how these guidelines can help you. For one, they do not guarantee your safety when you're attempting lane splitting, but they can help to increase the chances that neither you or the driver of another vehicle will be injured.

Experience is an important factor for anyone that is considering lane splitting while riding a motorcycle. Lane splitting is one of the most difficult tasks to perform safely when on a motorcycle, which is why it's essential that only those experienced in operating a motorcycle should attempt it. It's also exceedingly important to wear a motorcycle helmet at all times while riding a motorcycle, particularly when lane splitting. While not all states require the usage of a helmet, your safety is significantly increased when you do.

Lastly, it's important to understand that while it is legal in California to undergo a lane split when riding a motorcycle, it is still very much possible that a police officer will pull you over and hand you a citation if they feel as though you were driving recklessly, which is the primary reason why it's so important that you utilize the aforementioned guidelines when lane splitting. If you want to know more about motorcycle laws and how to earn a motorcycle license, you should peruse the California DMV Motorcycle Operator Manual. Also, if you're considering an attempt to earn your Motorcycle permit for the first time, take our Motorcycle Practice Test in preparation.