Lane splitting: Experience says yes

From the files: A motorcyclist splits the lanes on I-5 south of Los Angeles in October 2014.

The Judiciary Committee of the Oregon Senate held two days of hearings last week on SB 385, which would allow lane splitting by motorcycle riders when traffic is at a standstill, or nearly so. Unlike the opposition, testimony in favor of the bill was persuasive because it was based on experience and practical concerns.

Experienced motorcyclists and their associations support the bill because it allows riders to avoid congestion, thus making commuting by motorcycle in urban areas more attractive. Also, it keeps motorcyclists from burning their legs on hot exhausts as they are forced to stand still in traffic jams while their air-cooled engines are idling.

Opposition came from a trucking association, which fears that motorcyclists would be squashed between trucks that are moving side by side. Triple-A also is opposed, citing safety concerns, as is the Oregon Department of Transportation. But reading their testimony, it strikes me that their fears are based more on supposition than experience..

The bill would allow lane splitting only on multilane highways when traffic stands still or moves at less than 10 miles an hour. And motorcyclists moving between vehicles would be limited to 20 mph. The opponents worry that motorbikes would collide with vehicles changing lanes. But sudden lane changes are a stupid move and dangerous whether there's a motorcycle in the way or another car. Worrying about lane splitting in this situation is like prohibiting driving through an intersection because somebody might run the stop sign on the cross street.

Testimony in favor of the bill was marked by experience. A Portland resident named Brian Edwards testified he grew up in California, the only state where lane splitting is legal. He had a job in Costa Mesa and bought a house in Riverside, 45 miles away, because housing was less expensive there. Most days he commuted on his motorcycle, which allowed him to get through the ever-present congestion. He logged 60,000 miles on his motorbike, without a problem. That man clearly knew the benefits of lane spitting when the freeway becomes a parking lot.

Another witness, Paula Leslie, testified as a representative of ABATE, the group that promotes motorcycle safety, awareness and education. She pointed out the physical hazards of straddling a motorcycle that is forced to sit in a traffic jam. The exhaust pipes on many motorbikes are positioned so as to cause burns when riders are forced to put their feet down for long periods. To prove her point, she showed the committee photos of burn holes in her motorcycle pants.

The backers cited a 2015 study by the traffic safety center of UC-Berkeley. In a letter to a California assemblyman, lead researcher Thomas Rice said he had studied 6,000 motorcyclists who had been in collisions, including nearly 1,000 who had been lane-splitting at the time of their crashes. He found that compared to other motorcyclists, the lane-splitters were using better helmets, traveling at lower speeds, more often riding on weekdays and during commuting times, less often carrying passengers, less often under the influence of alcohol, and less likely to be hurt or killed.

As for accidents, "there was no meaningful increase in injury incidence until traffic speed exceeded roughly 50 mph," and "speed differentials of up to 15 mph were not associated with changes in injury occurrence."

The opponents of the Oregon bill worry about what might happen. But they can't possibly know because it's not allowed. The California experience says that if done within the limits spelled out in the Oregon bill, lane spitting is less risky or dangerous than motorcycling in general. Which is why the Senate should approve this bill and the House should do the same. (hh)

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