Motorcycle Accidents: Is Lane Splitting to Blame?

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PCH traffic

A motorcycle accident on Pacific Coast Highway early last week caused big delays driving into the city during the morning rush hour. Though details were hazy, it appeared the rider was splitting lanes of stop-and-go traffic and got into an accident near the intersection of PCH and Las Tunas in far Eastern Malibu. As Malibu commuters know, motorcycle accidents are fairly common, both on PCH and canyon roads. Malibu’s beauty and climate attract bikers from all around the world, but traffic means it is not always the safest place to ride.

With the motorcycle rider suffering serious injuries, The Malibu Times decided to delve into the controversial practice of lane splitting.  

Lane splitting is the practice of a motorcyclist passing between traffic lanes or rows of moving or stopped cars flowing in the same direction. 

As of January 1 of this year, with the enactment of AB-51, the practice was formally recognized as legal across California. The California Highway Patrol is now charged with developing formal guidelines.

Although legal in California, lane splitting is not recommended by many law enforcement officers.

Officials from the Malibu-Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, which patrols PCH in Malibu, said there are procedures and requirements that are supposed to be followed by motorcyclists wishing to lane split. The department said it’s generally not recommended to lane split at more than 10 miles per hour over the flow of traffic.  For instance, if traffic is moving at 15 miles per hour, it is not considered safe to squeeze a bike between lanes. The recommendation in the state of California is not to exceed 25 miles per hour in a lane split. 

 

“If you go much faster than that and you do get into a collision, then you might be taking on some of the liability yourself,” Detective David Huelsen cautioned. “The theory is that if you’re going that much faster than the flow of traffic then it may not be reasonable for somebody to see you when they’re making a lane change or other maneuver. You may not be able to react fast enough to somebody making a lane change in front of you if you’re going much faster than 10 mph over the speed of traffic. Also, lane splitting is not recommended if traffic is moving in excess of 30 mph.  So if traffic is going 30, then you shouldn’t lane split at all.” 

Huelsen said that while most lane splitting accidents occur on freeways, there have been some on PCH—and many of the PCH motorcycle accidents occur because car and truck drivers do not see bikes.

 

“The motorcycle accident we predominantly see in the Malibu area, especially on PCH where we have most of our accidents, is from people not yielding to motorcycles when they’re making a left turn—not seeing the motorcycles,” he described. “Sometimes people don’t see them while pulling out of driveways on PCH and cutting off the motorcycles—not yielding to the thru traffic and hitting a motorcycle. 

“Other times, motorcyclists will be at fault just for going way too fast,” he continued. “Case law in the past has changed liability for somebody when they pull in front of you or pull out in traffic in front of you—if you’re going much more than 15 – 20 mph over the speed limit, then you can absorb some of that liability because if you’re going that much faster than the posted speed limit then it may not be reasonable for that person to expect you to be going that fast. Their expectation is for you to be going the speed limit. So, if you’re going 15 mph over the limit, you could be incurring some of the liability. In some of the motorcycle accidents we’ve had—speed has been a factor causing them to lose some of their right of way.” 

 

Cameron Coll of Bartels’ Harley-Davidson in Marina del Rey is in favor of lane splitting. 

“[Lane splitting] allows us to get where we want to go and not affect traffic,” Coll said—but he added, “Drivers aren’t paying attention to bikes as much as they should.” 

Last November, he was in an accident when he claimed a driver was on her phone and not paying attention. 

“She was trying to change lanes and didn’t see me,” Coll recalled. “Luckily I had time to bail off the bike before I made contact with her car. I still hit the ground though.”  Coll suffered minor injuries.  

“I think one of the biggest advantages to lane splitting is not sitting in traffic, because a lot of times when there is traffic, that’s when people pull out their phones and they’re not looking in front of them,” Coll explained. “If a bike is stopped and a car rear-ends us, we get trapped between both cars. Lane splitting allows us to get out in front of traffic where everyone can see us. At an intersection as opposed to sitting in traffic where people are constantly on and off their brakes they can divert their attention elsewhere.”