Lane Splitting

The earlier posting on late merging reminds reader Joel of the issue of “lane splitting,” by which motorcyclists (and sometimes bicyclists) ride in the space between cars, ideally in heavy traffic. This is legal in California and other states, but, as he points out, it seems to raise drivers’ hackles (in places like Rome, of course, it’s an everyday fact of life, as scooters by the dozens “filter” between cars to settle near the front of stopped queues at traffic lights).

It’s an interesting, much-discussed issue (see here or here for example) because it raises so many of the issues that come up in traffic: Social justice (hey, why are they allowed to move when I’m stuck in traffic), different modes sharing the same road space, trading off risks, not to mention cognitive psychology.

Like so many things in traffic, it’s complex. In theory, I like the idea — why shouldn’t we use as much road space as possible? (the extra lane space put in for safety at high speeds is essentially wasted during congestion). A motorcycle between streams of cars shortens the length of the queue for cars, after all (and unlike HOV or hybrid lanes, doesn’t reduce existing highway space). On the other hand, there have been times when I’ve been absolutely startled by a motorcyclist unexpectedly passing me. This raises the question of the “attentional set”: If we don’t usually expect motorcycles to be there, will we not see them as we change lanes, or if we unintentionally “drift” a bit? (for the biker, the added problem is the people who don’t signal before changing).

And yet the smaller visual profile of motorcycles means we may not see them in front of us as easily as a car — not to mention the fact that the small fender-bender of stop-and-go traffic means more to a cyclist’s health than a car driver’s — and this brings up the point that has always been made vis a vis lane splitting: That being rear-ended by a car is a much greater hazard than riding between the lanes. The leading authority on this, and motorcycle safety in general, is Harry Hurt, author of the famous “Hurt Report” and now based here, who is quoted here as saying: “For a motorcyclist, that’s the safest place to be [between streams of traffic]… A lot of people think it’s a hazard, but the cold, hard facts are that it’s not.”

As far as I know, the “Hurt Report” has never been duplicated in size or scope, even as more motorcyclists have hit the road. The author himself seemed to think its 1970s-era findings, however, still hold valid.

As it happens, yesterday I was just reading a piece in Outside about the idea of bringing Asian-style “motorcycle taxis” to the U.S. The piece notes:

In the U.S., moto-taxis face two main obstacles. The first is insurance. When EagleRider, now the largest motorcycle-rental company, initially shopped for insurance, their rates were three times what they’re paying now. The second problem is a traffic law in 37 states that bans “splitting”—the practice of riding between lanes. Sounds unsafe, but even when allowed, it accounts for only 3 percent of motorcycle fatalities. When it’s outlawed, you’re stuck in crosstown traffic just like everyone else, only you’re breathing exhaust.

The 3% number is interesting; then again, if lane-splitting was only done when it is supposed to be, during slow or stopped heavy traffic, I wouldn’t expect large numbers of fatalities.

Any motorcyclists out there care to weigh in? Cyclists? Drivers? People selling things at traffic lights? (they too lane split)

And just to muddy the waters, speaking of social justice and road sharing, I’ve been annoyed lately to see motorized scooters chugging along in the bike lanes in Brooklyn and elsewhere. My knee-jerk reaction is ‘that’s not what their for” and ‘I don’t want your exhaust in my face’; but maybe I’m too harsh — perhaps if it’s otherwise unoccupied it’d be OK. But while it may make them feel safer, they may only be raising their exposure to “dooring” and other hazards.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 25th, 2009 at 12:31 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Motorcycles, Risk, Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

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February 2009

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