The Basic Rules
On the freeway, the accepted practice is to split between the furthest left lane and the second furthest left lane. This is usually the carpool lane and #1 lane. I know what you’re thinking and yes, I’ve often wondered about this too. Isn’t that illegal? Probably. The CHP and Sheriffs do it and have never pulled me over for it, but when questioned, motorcops have always told me that it’s technically illegal. Of course, this is only where people usually ride. It’s perfectly fine to split between any two lanes of traffic and on surface streets, I just look for the widest gap and go for that.
Between the fast lane and the one next to it, this rider is clear of wide trucks and doesn’t need to worry about people making last minute merges to take that exit.
On the surface streets, you can use stop-lights to your advantage. When cars are stopped, they aren’t going to change lanes into you. I know it sounds obvious, but this is a big difference and something you should keep in mind. When you catch a pack of cars at a traffic light, pick your route though them and pay close attention to the light as well. If it turns green before you reach the front, you’ll be right in the middle of the pack. Know when the cars are going to start moving again before they do and you’ll avoid a lot of trouble.
You should always move faster than traffic. Going too slowly is actually very dangerous. You end up spending a lot of time next to cars, where drivers can’t see you and where you’re not paying attention to them. But, if you go too fast, you won’t have enough time to look at and judge cars before you pass them. The ideal speed will change depending on the bike you’re riding, your vision (time of day, cloud cover and sun are big factors here) and how fast traffic is moving. Once traffic reaches the speed limit, you’ll find yourself moving quite a bit faster than is legal and too fast for most people to safely control a bike with cars on either side. Keep these things in mind and pick your own speed.
You should never ride next to a car. They will invariably try to change lanes into you. There’s a reason Nick Ienatsch calls this the death zone. Plan your move, set the car up and make your pass. Don’t whack the throttle wide open as cars often do stupid things at the last second, but get past as quickly as possible without drawing attention to yourself. Just like riding on a track, smoothness is key.
If you catch another motorcycle, be patient for a second. They’re concentrating just as hard as you are and it might take them a second to see you. If they don’t, flash your lights a few times to get their attention. If they don’t have mirrors or aren’t checking them, it’s perfectly acceptable to beep the horn. Most riders will slip in between cars and let you by. Be nice and wave when people do this. If a rider sees you and refuses to let you by, this is not the time to be aggressive. Either slow down to their pace and live with it or move over a lane and go around. If you notice someone on your tail, move over as soon as is convenient to let them by. Use hand signals to motion them ahead and wave.
Talk to anyone who’s been splitting lanes for a long time and they’ll invariably have a story about the time they broke someone’s mirror off. This isn’t something anyone is proud of and it’s not something you should ever do. No matter how satisfying it would feel. Avoid getting into sticky situations with cars and hopefully you’ll never find yourself angry enough that you resort to violence. Just concentrate on getting where you’re going.
Lane splitting has its own set of special riding techniques to master. Dragging the rear brake to smooth things out at low speed is a common enough skill, but it’s extra useful here. If you have an awkward hiccup rolling off and back on the throttle between cars, you may run out of room and crash.
Speaking of awkward moments, you’ll have one if your front brake lever makes contact with a car’s mirror. Pay special attention to the space between car mirrors and your bars.
Once you make it past the tightly packed rows of stopped cars at an intersection, pull to one side to let other bikes though. It’s never a fun to be stuck between cars when the light turns green. Keep the bike in gear too, when the signal changes you can take off immediately and get out in front of the cars. This is one most satisfying feelings you’ll have riding on the street. Most of the time, things will go smoothly and you’ll get to do that.
There will be other times when you come across a stake-bed gardener truck and have no hope of getting past. Make sure the cars around you understand what you’re doing and try again at the next light. Traffic often loosens up once cars start moving and if those people know there’s a motorcyclist, they’ll usually move over and let you by. Sometimes the gardener truck appears out of nowhere. In these sort of situations, you’re reminded of why you don’t just fly through stopped traffic at 50mph. Getting stopped from 8mph can even be a challenge sometimes. Your best defense against people opening their doors, pulling out of hidden driveways and others making last ditch efforts at lane changes is to slow down and pay close attention to what is going on around you.
Even where lane splitting is permitted, it’s often technically illegal. And, if you come across a copper while splitting, don’t expect a judge or insurance company to rule against the poor, innocent driver that ran over the dangerous, scary biker.
Most places where splitting is legal or at least permitted, the general rule of thumb is that it’s only kosher to split through slow or stopped traffic. On the highway, slow might be 35-45mph. On a surface street, that might mean 15mph. Your relative speed to that traffic also matters. If you’re going 55mph through stopped traffic you’re a) a moron and b) likely to incur the wrath of the Highway Patrol, even if you’re not exceeding the speed limit. Again, this is all about judgement, but figure a 5-15mph speed difference. Don’t be an asshole and you should be alright.
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