Allow me to talk you into a thing: I think it's a great idea to ride a motorcycle between moving cars on a highway.
Should you live east of California this will sound nuts, but it only feels that way the first couple times you try it. Then you become an addict. On a good track day I might pass a couple guys and be damned proud I did. Lane splitting at rush hour I might pass 10,000 cars. Maybe more. I have no idea, and I'm not going to slow down to count. Shall I continue to the part where it seems reasonable, and I convince you it's legal? Because it is.
Get past the thrill of watching rearview mirrors blur past the end of your bars and lane splitting is a startlingly good traffic solution. Fundamentally, motorcyclists maintain a reasonable speed in congestion by sharing a lane with slowed traffic. Typically the motorcyclist slots into the right side of the fast lane. On surface streets, motorcyclists are allowed to filter through traffic to the front when there's a stoplight.
It's good for everyone: For those comfortable in their cars, the lane splitting motorcycle cruising past is one less vehicle between the front bumper and their destination. You can fit two motorcycles in the footprint of one small car. It's easy math. For the rider, the reward is being nearly impervious to congestion. My fellow lane-splitting riders in Los Angeles and San Francisco will back this up, as they regularly and safely trim hours off of long distance commutes.
FIRST RIDE: 2015 Yamaha FZ-07
When I first started dating my girlfriend, she lived in LA and I lived 50 miles away near our old office in Newport Beach. It's a drive that should take an hour, and it does—if you're on the road around 4 A.M. Just about any other time you'll have traffic to contend with and if you try to make the trip at rush hour you'll be looking at taillights for more than two hours. Would I have stuck it out with Hayley despite the traffic? Absolutely. Would I have been happy? Probably not. It doesn't matter how nice your car is, traffic sucks and you'll never get those hours back. That's ten percent of the day, gone.
Cutting an hour each way off my daily grind was enough to make me an evangelist, but I wouldn't be here preaching if improving my commute was the only benefit to sharing lanes.
By the numbers, it's practical and sensible. Lane splitting is both those things, but it's also intense. It uses your mind and your body and doesn't leave much space for anything else. You connect your eyes to your hands, you look ahead a thousand yards for threats to your delicate spine. It is active riding; heads-up and engaged with literally make or break decision-making. It's your ass if your mind wanders.
When was the last time you were aware of your mortality on your commute? When was the last time you were conscious of your delicate existence for an hour? Lane splitting can make you think in a way that you've only ever thought on the race track, or at unsensible and probably illegal speed on the street. It's not especially difficult, but it is completely engaging. It isn't for everyone. For those with the inclination though, it'll tune you up something fierce.
Those rides up the 405 from Orange County to Los Angeles straightened me out like nothing ever has. At the time Road & Track was in the middle of a huge overhaul; long hours, tons of frustration. None of that stress made it home to Hayley and our nascent relationship survived. Lane splitting worked every time.
I hear a lot of talk about Kommiefornia, our nanny state, our restrictive laws and taxes. Yet somehow California has managed to keep lane splitting legal. We'd be the greatest state in the Union, if only for that. Most of Europe, too, has given lane splitting the thumbs up. Other states are abandoning the helmet laws which unquestionably improve rider safety; yet somehow California is the only state where you and I can ride and drive alongside each other. That's a damned shame.
Recently though, our good fortune has smiled on the rest of the country. A clever team of researchers from University of California Berkeley has used California Highway Patrol data to study lane splitting in my fair state. Their report for the California Office of Traffic Safety concludes that the practice isn't just sensible for escaping traffic, it also found that lane splitters "notably less likely to suffer head injury (9.1% vs 16.5%), torso injury (18.6% vs 27.3%), or fatal injury (1.4% vs 3.1%) than other motorcyclists." In addition, when lane splitters did not greatly exceed the speed of surrounding traffic, they had the lowest proportion of injuries. Perhaps surprisingly to non-riders, the research shows that lane splitting—when executed at a reasonable speed with the proper gear—could make riding safer.
Just about every responsible motorcyclist in California already knew that, and we love having the numbers to back it up. We've long suspected that riding between cars was safer than rolling along in a column at the mercy of the fickle attention span of commuting traffic—that's inherently unsafe, from the perspective of a rider boxed in by heavy, potentially deadly cars and trucks. I'd take my chances clipping a rearview mirror because of my lack of skill over being rear-ended because of someone else's lack of caffeine any day.
Data is just the thing to ball up in your fist and shake at your local politician. And you should do just that. Or you can save yourself a headache and do the easy thing by going straight to the top and petition President Obama to take action.
I hope you do, and I hope it works, because I'd love to share a lane with you.
(Note: This article has been updated to provide more detail about the specific conclusions of the OTS report.)
Lead image by Getty/Anna Bryukhanova