There has been a great deal of debate regarding motorcycles moving forward between lanes of slow or stationary traffic on the freeways of Washington State. While this is a basic motorcycle maneuver in virtually all the rest of the world, the concept seems quite alien to many drivers and law enforcement in the state. I am hoping the explanations and information here will help rectify the issue of perceptions that seems to be at the core of this issue.
Imagine for a moment you are riding a motorcycle in slow moving freeway traffic. There is a vehicle in front of you with space in front of it. On either side of this vehicle is space enough for you to pass the vehicle in front of you. Making certain that you are in a low enough gear to provide adequate acceleration if an emergency requires, you make your move and pass the vehicle riding along the dividing white line between the lanes. After safely passing the vehicle you pull into the open available space. You have just split the lanes. Albeit while only passing one vehicle, but you have done it. By simply keeping yourself alert and ready to respond with either brake or throttle as necessary in an emergency, you can successfully proceed safely through the congested traffic.
At about this point in the conversation, usually one of a two questions are brought up. Both are related closely enough to simply be a variation of the same question. What happens if a car should suddenly change lanes in front of a lane sharing motorcyclist, and who is liable for the collision. This is one of those ‘perceptions’ I had mentioned earlier. The perception here is; that a motorcyclist who is safely and properly lane sharing is much more likely to be hit by a vehicle changing lanes than one maintaining their position in the flow of traffic. However, the facts don’t support this perception. One of the conclusions in Dr. James V. Ouellet’s 2011 study Lane Splitting on California Freeways was that; “Maintaining a normal lane position does nothing to eliminate sudden path encroachment by cars. Motorcyclists are vulnerable to incautious car drivers making sudden, unsignaled lane changes regardless of the motorcycle position in the lane.” As to liability; while I am not an attorney, I would expect it to depend on the cause of that collision, not a blanket liability placed on one party or the other. While collisions do happen while lane sharing, nearly thirty years of research and study from around the world show that those collisions are much less frequent than those involving motorcyclist who are not lane sharing. Even the famous ‘Hurt Report’ (considered by many to be the most in-depth and complete motorcycle accident study of the 20th Century) found that lane sharing was involved in less than 1% of the 900 accidents in the study. It may help the reader’s understanding to know that Dr. J.V. Ouellet was the co-author of the “Hurt Report”, and has more than forty years in the field of traffic safety research.
This perception of lane sharing being a dangerous activity performed by thrill seekers is totally out of touch with the reality. While there are those who do perform the technique at high speed differentials to traffic flow, they are by far in the minority. However, they are also the ones who are the focus of YouTube videos and television news reports. Meanwhile, as was found in the ‘Hurt Report’, as well as other studies since, nearly 66% of motorcyclists on the California freeways partake in lane splitting, and account for less than 1% of the motorcycle fatalities. The two studies done by Dr. Rice, of UC Berkeley in 2014 and 2015 continue to support the previous findings. As do the findings of the 2009 MAIDS (Motorcycle Accident In-Depth Study) from Europe.
Yet the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, some in law enforcement, and others continue to disregard and denigrate these studies in lieu of (and actually perpetuating) the perceptions created by these YouTube videos. The perception this creates is that of an conscious effort to focus on motorcycles as only a safety related concern and not as a full and integrated facet of transportation policy. A project manager at the WTSC stated to me that since motorcycles accounted for only 4% of registered vehicles in Washington, they don’t have much of an effect on traffic. That is the perception shared throughout the state agencies. Yet, if only one in four motorcycles lane shared, that would take over 70,000 motorcycles out of the states traffic stream. That wouldn’t have an effect on traffic?
Catch you on the road sometime…