Lane splitting is the single best about riding motorcycles. There is something magical about being able to go wherever you want regardless of traffic conditions, getting there fast and without spending a ton of money on gas. If you lane split on your commute to and from work and save an hour per day, you’ll get back over a week of your life every year. Would you rather sit in a car, being frustrated and wishing you were somewhere else, or cruise home stress-free on a motorcycle in 1/3 of the time? Here’s how.
Does this sound too good to be true? Well, that’s because in 49 of America’s 50 states, it is. There are two things to take away from this story. If you’re Californian, from literally anywhere outside America and want to learn to lane split, I’ll give you some of the information you need to get started. If you live in one of the other 49 states, hopefully I can make lane splitting attractive enough to you that you’ll tell your buddies, they’ll tell their buddies and eventually someone will write a letter to a government official to start the process of getting it legalized.
It feels amazing when your speed isn’t governed by a sign and the fear of highway robbery at the hands of the police, but instead by the constraints of your physical environment. You can only ride so fast with a few inches of clearance on either side of the bike. There are also police around, but no one is going to give you a hard time for zipping through traffic between the carpool lane and the fast lane. It gets even better. Instead of being motivated by bragging rights, points and the possibility of a plastic trophy, going as fast as you safely can through traffic means arriving at your destination sooner and having more time to spend on whatever it is you left the house to do. But just like any other riding skill, safe and effective lane spitting takes practice.
Watching riders split lanes while sitting low down, in a line of traffic, in a car can look pretty scary. But look at it from a rider’s point of view. High up and sitting in the gap, there’s plenty of room to make safe progress and spot lane changes before they occur.
Consider Starting With a Bicycle
I was without a vehicle or drivers’ license for a few months back when I was 18. I rode a road bike everywhere and got pretty good in traffic. Pasadena, Hollywood and Downtown LA all have brutal traffic and that’s where I was riding. In addition to dropping down to 143 and 3 percent body fat, I learned how to safely navigate traffic. If you want to quit sitting in traffic, hoping you don’t get rear-ended or die of heat-stroke, get on a bicycle and learn how to filter through it. You’re unlikely to run in to any legality issues and there’s no stress of dropping your 400lb bike on a car while trying to get past its mirrors. You’ll be able to pay attention to car drivers and form opinions about the risk they pose to you.
Wear Safety Gear
If you live in California and decide that lane splitting is simply too scary and dangerous for you, consider this: Attempting to occupy the space of a car with something barely larger than a bicycle simply doesn’t work. People will always be trying to change lanes into you, not seeing you in front of them and running you down. If you’ve ever ridden in traffic, you’ve undoubtedly encountered this before. I would put fear of being rear-ended or lane-changed into up there with having someone turn left in front of me.
That said, lane splitting is dangerous. You could die or seriously injure yourself. I’ve been the first guy on the scene of bloody lane-splitting related crashes more times that I’d like and after seeing what happens when a drunken crackhead on a stolen 748 clips a car and hits the ground, it’s hard not to get preachy about ATGATT. Know that if you’re wearing anything less than high-quality protective gear head-to-toe, you are increasing your chances of bloody broken knees and ankles, a broken back or shattered and bloody jaw. Invest in armored pants or Kevlar jeans, boots with ankle protection, a back protector and a full-face helmet.
Your gear is at least as important in traffic as it is on the track. If you crash at 50 mph between two rows of cars moving at 35 mph, there will be no shortage of hard objects to run into and once you get slowed down, no shortage of cars to run over you. Waterproof textile suits (one piece or two) that fit over your regular clothes are ideal commuting gear. They’re comfortable in most weather and when you get where you’re going, you just take them off. Having a way to transport a pair of shoes and a place to put your gear is really nice and will help you avoid the temptation to dress like a squid and hope for the best.
Why am I doling out a harsher safety warning than when I told you how to get your knee down? Lane-splitting is more like racing than any other kind of riding. It demands your full concentration; there is very little room for error and, if you crash, it can get ugly in a hurry.
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 Lenatsch calls this the death zone in his excellent book, Sport Riding Techniques: How To Develop Real World Skills for Speed, Safety, and Confidence on the Street and Track. 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.
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