Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
Several years ago, California enacted a law that legalized the motorcycle practice called “lane splitting.” This involves the rider easing through heavy traffic by utilizing the space between the lanes, riding along the painted lane divider. There are several very good reasons for this. First off, it’s a way to get at least some of the traffic moving during those legendary Southern California traffic jams. Secondly, the stop and go ooze is hard enough on a car. A motorcycle is far more prone to things like overheating engines and burned-out clutches. And nobody needs yet another disabled vehicle on the roadway. It’s safer for the rider, avoiding the very real possibility of becoming the meat in a tractor-trailer sandwich. It thins out the traffic herd and is better on the environment since there are fewer things dirtier than an idling engine.
But Southern Californians, normally a pretty laid-back group, decidedly don’t like lane splitting.
A recent survey conducted by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) turned up some disturbing results.
Though lane splitting has been legal for some time, that’s news to some 53% of California drivers who thought the practice against the law. But even among drivers who do know the law, it’s still highly unpopular. Motorcyclists, though, thoroughly love it.
But buried in the statistics was a disturbing number. 7% of drivers admit to cutting off riders and even opening their doors to try to block them. This isn’t news to the two-wheeled set, all of whom have their private stock of horror stories to relate.
Now, 7% doesn’t sound like much until you consider the larger picture.
The number of cars and trucks using SoCal’s freeways during rush hour have been estimated to be as high as 3.5 million. 7% of that number is around 245,000. That means that on a given day, there are around a quarter-million motorists that admit to having assaulted a motorcyclist.
Think about those numbers during your next commute.
Even though I’ve been riding for a little over 20 years, I’m not single-scoping this issue. I can well understand the frustration of being gridlocked twice a day, only to see some dude on a bike zipping between cars, sure to get to his destination long before we get to ours. But I can also see this from the point of view of the rider.
Operating a motorcycle is a far more physically demanding task than driving a car or truck, especially in bad weather (this includes 100-degree summer days as well). Stuck in a long line of cars, the bike, never overly visible under regular conditions, becomes even harder to detect, squeezed in between a menagerie of high-sided vehicles. There is danger from cars switching lanes into what they thought was an empty space only to discover far too late that the “occupied” sign is out. A rider is exposed directly to exhaust fumes from all the vehicles around.
It doesn’t help that a few of us do this lane-splitting thing way too fast. That’s arrogant riding and you practically invite retaliation. I shouldn’t have to remind anyone that these are stressful times, which some of us aren’t handling all that well. Under those conditions, it doesn’t take much to push someone over the edge into acts of aggression and even violence.
The bottom line is this. Lane splitting is legal in California. If you’re a driver who becomes consumed by jealousy and hatred when you see the bikes passing by, then there’s nothing to prevent you from taking the Rider Safety Course sponsored by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), buying a bike of your own, and joining in the general glee that turns a mere commute into a spiritual adventure. In many other countries, two-wheeled conveyances are the primary means of transportation, flitting in and around vehicular traffic like flies around a herd of horses. Yet, they prove that it can be done safely and sanely.
It all boils down to respect. That rider you see in traffic is really no different from you.