For decades, California has been the only state that allows lane-splitting, but not because it’s “legal” – it has always existed in a gray area of the law, and exists just as an accepted practice there. Now, lawmakers are finally putting lane-splitting on the books – but could the same happen in other states in the future?
On August 5th, 2016, after spending nearly a year and a half being bounced around in California’s state legislature, AB 51 – a bill codifying the practice of lane-splitting by motorcycles – was approved by a unanimous vote of 69-0 by the state Assembly. The bill now sits on Governor Brown’s desk, where it is expected that it will soon be signed into law.
Now at a glance, the passing of AB 51 may not seem like a big deal. It doesn’t set any parameters for what constitutes legal or illegal lane-splitting, or specify any punishments for breaking them. In fact, AB 51 is odd because, basically, all it does is say “lane splitting is officially a thing.” Check out the exact text of the law below, as it was published on the California Legistative Information web site.
The text of AB 51 in it’s final form. Originally conceived to create parameters for legal vs. illegal lane splitting, the amended version basically does nothing but create a legal definition of the term. But this alone is a victory in a state where it’s never been officially recognized before.
As it was passed, AB 51 is vague and oddly written – but it didn’t start off that way. In its original form, it gave specifics about what would constitute it being done legally; the bill, authored by Assembly member Bill Quirk (D – Hayward) originally proposed that it could occur legally only when a motorcycle was moving no more than 15 MPH faster than traffic around it, and prohibited it at speeds above 50 MPH.
However, a number of motorcycle advocacy groups objected to the specificity contained in the original bill, arguing that the speed limits were too low, and that those requirements took away riders’ ability to use their best judgment to adjust to the traffic situation around them.
But at the same time, other groups objected to the bill on sheer principle, because many believe that the practice is dangerous at any speed, and under any circumstances, and should be banned outright – as it is in every other state in the U.S.
It is in that sense that this short, unusual bill is actually a victory for riders – because it officially enters the practice of lane splitting into law. You see, for decades, lane splitting in California has been neither legal, nor illegal; it existed in an odd gray area of the law where it is accepted only because no laws existed expressly prohibiting its practice.
This “legal because it’s not illegal” tolerance grew to be a cultural norm here in California over the years – which has more registered riders than any other state – in large part because law enforcement was as big a fan of the practice as civilian riders were. In CA, motor cops split lanes regularly, whether it’s to beat traffic, or to patrol stealthily between cars looking for people breaking the law. In fact, some of AB 51s most influential support came from a number of law enforcement organizations – including the state’s largest law enforcement bureau, the CHP themselves.
In fact, the language used in AB 51 is actually a vindication of sorts for the CHP. You see, while lane splitting has been accepted for decades here, and was never in much danger of being outlawed, the CHP drew some criticism in 2014 when it published guidelines to splitting lanes safely on their website, in an effort to get both drivers and riders on the same page about safe ways to do it.
The new guidelines, unfortunately, drew negative attention from a minority of people who felt that the CHP was, in effect, “creating de facto law” by publishing the guidelines. The logic was this – that because the CHP is a law enforcement agency, them publishing “guidelines” suggested that, if the guidelines weren’t followed, one could be punished legally as a result. A concerned citizen brought a lawsuit against the CHP the same year, and the guidelines were taken down shortly after. That event, in fact, was the true catalyst behind the creation of AB 51.
Two years later, oddly enough, the CHP is now not only mentioned by name as the administrative body tasked with creating safe guidelines around the practice, but because no specific parameters exist in the bill about what constitutes legal or illegal lane splitting, it still falls upon the CHP and other law enforcement to regulate the practice, based on their best judgment about whether a rider is doing it safely or not.
A motorcycle rider splits lanes near Los Angeles, CA.
That’s the odd part about AB 51 – as a rider in this state, the net effect of AB 51 is essentially zero! You will still be allowed to lane split, and law enforcement can still step in if you appear to be doing it unsafely – the only difference is in principle, because now, lane splitting is not just tolerated, it’s officially legal. It is a victory for riders because now, no organization trying to ban it here is likely to ever be successful, and it’s a victory for the CHP, because now they’re not only permitted to create guidelines for safe practice of lane splitting, they’re actually tasked with it.
But in the bigger picture, it could mean more to riders across the country who want the practice to spread. Currently California is the only state where it is permitted – in spite of the fact that there is extensive information suggesting that splitting lanes is not only more convenient for riders, but it is actually safer, such as this major study executed as a joint project between the CHP and UC Berkeley. But with it now being officially codified in California, this gives more teeth to rider advocacy groups who would like to see the practice be adopted to other states, where previous attempts to do so have failed.
So what do you think – will California’s long-awaited official recognition of lane splitting affect other states view of the practice? Would you support a move to legalize it in your state?