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California lane-splitting law aims to hold the line on motorcycle safety

California last week became the first state to legalize lane splitting when Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation recognizing the right of motorcycles to travel between lanes on roads and highways during traffic snarls and congestion.

Brown signed Assembly Bill 51 on Friday despite surveys that show a wide majority of motorists who don’t ride motorcycles disapprove of the practice. Lane splitting has been a gray area in state law because California statutes neither explicitly allowed it nor prohibited it.

California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Fran Clader told AMI Newswire Monday that the CHP did not yet have a timeline on when the process of drawing up statewide lane-splitting guidelines, as required by the new law, will begin. Until then, drivers should share the road, look twice for motorcycles and watch their speed, Clader said.

By supporting the bill, state lawmakers and the governor have recognized a roadway practice that has been in use for decades, according to Rob Dingman, president of the American Motorcyclist Association.

“Lane splitting keeps riders safer by eliminating their exposure to rear-end collisions, and it helps ease congestion by effectively removing motorcycles from the traffic lanes,” he said in a prepared statement.

Jim Witters, the association’s managing editor, told AMI Newswire that the group, which has more than 200,000 members nationwide, worked with lawmakers to bring the bill in line with findings from University of California, Berkeley, studies released in 2014 and 2015.

“The original version of AB 51 we did not take a stance on,” Witters said, pointing out that an older version of the legislation had additional restrictions.

The UC Berkeley research found that lane-splitting motorcycle riders were less often injured during collisions than riders who didn’t split lanes. Indeed, motorcyclists who split lanes in traffic were found to be less likely to be struck from behind and less likely to be fatally injured in a crash.

“Lane splitting appears to be a relatively safe motorcycle riding strategy if done in traffic moving at 50 mph or less and if motorcyclists do not exceed the speed of other vehicles by more than 15 mph,” the study said.

The same study, however, found that 61 percent of passenger vehicle drivers somewhat disapproved or strongly disapproved of lane splitting. And more than a third of motorists incorrectly thought that lane splitting was illegal in California, the survey said.

In 2012, the CHP drew up lane-splitting guidelines with traffic safety experts, and the results were posted on the CHP and Office of Traffic Safety websites and published in a Department of Motor Vehicles handbook for motorcyclists. But the guidelines were withdrawn after a complaint was filed saying that the state agencies lacked the authority to publish such guidelines.

“Removal of the guidelines left a huge gap with regards to traffic safety,” said one of the bill’s authors, Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), in a prepared statement. “CHP had to curtail all education and outreach efforts on lane splitting.”

The bill signed into law on Friday allows the CHP to develop educational lane-splitting guidelines to best assure the safety of motorcycle riders and motorists, but the bill itself doesn’t set any specific standards or speed limitations. The American Motorcyclist Association now wants to work with the CHP to create guidelines that help the public understand how lane splitting works and the benefits of it, Witters said.

During the discussion about the bill in the state legislature, several citizens came forward to oppose the practice. Lane splitting encourages speeding and can cause disruptions on roads because motorcycles zipping along lane lines can startle  motorists in traffic, opponents said.

They also challenged the notion that lanes are wide enough to safely accommodate both a car and a passing motorcycle safely.

Bills to legalize lane splitting have been discussed in other states in recent years, including Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Texas, Witters said.

Supporters of the bill also include the Personal Insurance Federation of California, which represents large insurers in the state. Codifying lane-splitting guidelines in California will help to improve roadway safety and cut down on traffic injuries while educating the public about the practice, the federation said.