Motorcycle lane splitting: Better for riders, better for drivers, and safer than sitting in traffic

Motorcycle lane splitting: Better for riders, better for drivers, and safer than sitting in traffic
Motorcycle lane splitting: faster and safer for riders, plus it makes the journey quicker for everyone else. (Photo: Loz Blain/Gizmag)
Motorcycle lane splitting: faster and safer for riders, plus it makes the journey quicker for everyone else. (Photo: Loz Blain/Gizmag)
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Motorcycle lane filtering: faster and safer for riders, plus it makes the journey quicker for everyone else
Motorcycle lane filtering: faster and safer for riders, plus it makes the journey quicker for everyone else
Motorcycle lane splitting: faster and safer for riders, plus it makes the journey quicker for everyone else. (Photo: Loz Blain/Gizmag)
Motorcycle lane splitting: faster and safer for riders, plus it makes the journey quicker for everyone else. (Photo: Loz Blain/Gizmag)

Recent research has confirmed what many motorcycle riders have known for years. "Lane splitting" – or riding in between lanes of traffic – obviously saves riders a lot of time, but it's also considerably safer than sitting in traffic and acting like a car, as long as it’s done within certain guidelines, and contrary to what many drivers think, it actually speeds up traffic for everyone else on the road. Riders, please pass this information on to the drivers in your lives.

It’s time for certain drivers to get these thoughts out of their heads: "lane splitting is queue jumping," "motorcyclists should have to wait in line like the rest of us," "riding in between cars is suicidal." While it’s illegal in most of the United States, it’s accepted in many other parts of the world, and evidence is mounting that lane splitting is safer for riders than sitting in traffic, and actually benefits car drivers as well as the riders themselves.

Safety benefits of lane splitting for motorcyclists

One of the key arguments against lane splitting is that, to many driver’s eyes, it seems like a dangerous practice. From a rider’s perspective, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The most common type of accident on the road is a rear-ender. These make up 40 percent of all accidents in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And while most of these are minor fender benders between car drivers, there’s really no such thing as a minor fender bender if someone slams into the back of a motorcycle. By splitting between lanes, riders are able to put a shell of slow or stopped traffic around their bikes and protect against the inattention of other road users.

In a recent Berkeley study undertaken with the California Highway Patrol’s assistance, 7,836 motorcycle crashes were examined closely, with some 1,163 of these crashes having occurred while the rider was lane splitting.

Riders who were splitting at the time of their accident were significantly less likely to be injured in every category than those who weren’t: 45 percent fewer head injuries, 21 percent fewer neck injuries, 32 percent fewer torso injuries, 12 percent fewer arm/leg injuries, and 55 percent fewer fatalities.

This is quite possibly because the majority of those splitting accidents happened at speeds between 1 and 30 mph (50 km/h). The data also shows that the safest way to lane split is to travel at less than 30 mph, and less than 10 mph above the speed of the surrounding traffic. Injury rates leap up in all categories when both of these conditions are violated.

Motorcycle lane filtering: faster and safer for riders, plus it makes the journey quicker for everyone else
Motorcycle lane filtering: faster and safer for riders, plus it makes the journey quicker for everyone else

Benefits of lane splitting for other road users

Lane splitting is an unspoken contract between riders and drivers. Riders don’t wait for stopped cars, and in return, they don’t make the cars wait for them. Where many drivers get it wrong is that they see lane splitting as "queue jumping" that will cause each car to go one further spot back in the queue. In truth, a filtering bike disappears from the queue altogether, the only time a motorcycle holds a car up is when it sits in traffic and acts like another car.

Filtering bikes work their way to the front of stopped traffic at red lights, and accelerate away much quicker than the cars around them. When they reach the next stoppage, they disappear again between the lanes and no car is held up.

Certainly, this is a good deal for the rider, who arrives much earlier than the car driver. But every filtering rider has a positive effect on traffic flow that benefits every other motorist. A 2012 Belgian study found that if just 10 percent of drivers were to switch to motorcycles and filter through traffic, travel times would decrease for the remaining car drivers by some eight minutes per journey. This benefit would not exist if motorcyclists ignored the inherent advantages of their smaller, narrower vehicles and sat in line like cars.

The same study found considerable environmental benefits to lane splitting. Not because bikes emit less carbon (many larger bikes are as bad as cars), but because every bike that lane splits actively reduces the amount of time every other vehicle on the road spends sitting in traffic jams.

So the next time a rider wriggles past you in traffic, remember that it’s a win-win. The rider is saving time and money, and looking after their own safety, but they’re also making everyone else’s journey faster. So give them some space, for your own sake.

Facebook User
I always give all forms of cycles space to pass and it amazes me how many of them steadfastly plonk themselves behind cars like they were eight feet wide. One of the great joys of cycling (motor and manual) is being able to weave through the traffic. Fantastic fun in cities as all the rest of the traffic is stuck like glue. All we need is better weather protection to make it an all year round lark.
Michiel Mitchell
Been there, done it, got my life saved by doing it, on a couple of occasions... Even got a couple of traffic-citations for it... I should go get my money back, I think....
As a long time motorcyclist and (ex) proud owner of a BMW K1200S, in the UK, filtering (as we call it in the UK) is something that I've always done. In fact, in the UK motorcycling test (part 2, practical) you will fail your test if you don't filter. Given that our road speeds are far higher on average than in the USA, if it works safely here, then it should work safely there.
The problem lies, as you identified correctly, in that some drivers, even here in the UK, think you're pushing in, or jumping the queue. Most drivers in the UK are considerate, but I have had a physical fight with a van driver who tried to deliberately knock me off my bike and took objection to me questioning the marital status of his parents.
The thing to remember as a motorcyclist is that it is always your fault if anything happens. This statement will upset many people, especially those who have lost loved ones and friends in bike accidents. However, if you have the attitude that you, as a rider, are not responsible, then you will become a statistic. Basically, you have to plan ahead and be aware of everything around you and all possibilities. Thus, the faster you travel, the less time your brain has to process this information and mitigate danger and hazards. In the UK, it is actually illegal to filter over 50mph, and up to that speed, at more than 5mph faster than the traffic you are overtaking. In other words, you filter past stationary traffic at 5mph. At that speed you can observe the queues of traffic, look out for lane changers, oil, potholes, texters, smokers etc and have a reasonable chance of stopping or avoiding them. If you filter at 20 or 30mph past stationary traffic then you deserve to get splattered by a car.
Filtering on a motorway (freeway) is as safe as you make it. If you observe a hazard which has blocked a lane and the traffic is slowing down, then you should recognise that there will be a lot of jockeying for position by cars. In other words, drivers try to find the quickest moving queue and that means lane changing which could mean drivers moving without signalling, or spotting a gap, but not you, and making a sudden manoeuvre to exploit the gap. It's all common sense and the best reference is to think how you drive your car. I'm a firm believer that no-one should be given a driving licence unless they've done the Common Basic Training (CBT) practical test that motorcyclists have to pass. This involves a 2 hour road ride being observed and is performed before you are certified safe to ride any powered bike up to 125cc. Additionally, no-one should be handed a motorcycle licence until they've got 5 years driving experience behind the wheel of a car either. If we implemented this in the UK, there'd be a lot less motorcycle deaths.
Riding a motorcycle safely is not just a lot of fun, it's also a work out for your brain. If you disengage your brain, then be ready to exchange your leather suit for a wooden one.
Facebook User
Author, I couldn't disagree with you more. I've been riding for decades. Splitting is one of the most senseless and stupid things a biker can do. There simply isn't enough clearance side to side and you just can't trust what cars next to you are going to do. You don't have enough time to react to what's just ahead or along side you.
In response to the nameless Facebook User above you clearly got no idea what you are talking about. I seriously doubt you "have been riding for decades."
Jason Holman
What about waiting your turn?
Deneric Hansen
Everything the author says is true but with one key fact being omitted since this story is heavily biased towards lane splitting. Lane splitting in stopped traffic truly does shorten the actual traffic jam and because of motorcycles faster acceleration they do not cause the delay affect at traffic lights or when the traffic opens back up. However, when traffic is moving at a steady, slow pace lane splitting can be extremely dangerous. While you can argue it is the drivers responsibility to watch for bikes, drivers will lane drift to the left to get a "feel" for what is up the road. In bumper-to-bumper traffic these drivers assume all traffic is moving at the same speed and they do not expect a motorcycle to be passing inside their lane at speeds up to 10 mph faster then they are traveling (10 is the safe mark the author posts, but I have been passed at 30-50mph faster). A traffic lane is made for one vehicle width and expectation of anything else will lead to accidents. If a bike hits a car inside the cars lane it is the motorcyclist fault and given the lack of protection bikers have it is not worth it.
I rode for years sitting behind cars like a fool. Then moved to a big-city and quickly realized everything this article sheds light on.
- There is ample clearance between cars for pretty much any road-worthy motorcycle.
- Cars don't typically turn into other cars. So there is an extra safety buffer there when you are between two cars. See a gap in traffic on one side that isn't there on the other side of traffic... slow-down, because that's a scenario where you can be cut-off by a motorists that didn't bother checkin' their mirrors.
Facebook User, you're obviously not a motorcycle rider, so why should anybody listen to you? Go back to knitting, it's much safer for you.
Rann Xeroxx
Wow, this is one of the most irresponsible posts I have read on (what is suppose to be a) tech journal in a while. So what happens if a young and impressible motorcyclist takes you up on your study's recommendations and does this and gets killed or gravely injured? Where is the counter study noting traffic accidents and death stats from another source?
And roads go through a great deal of study and engineering and the size of a lane is designed specifically for one vehicle, not one and half a motor bike. Plus driving on a busy highway is with multiple lanes requires hyper awareness of everything around you and adding a speeding motorcycle mere inches driving by in your lane by your car adds to the needed awareness factor exponentially.
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