Motorcyclists in freeway traffic jams

The in basket: During an extended motor trip this fall, I found myself stuck in one of the infamous traffic jams that bedevil Los Angeles freeways. A rear-ender on I-10 had all but stopped traffic. During the crawl, probably three dozen motorcycles in several groups passed us driving down the line between the lanes – and between the larger vehicles. A few were probably doing it at 25 or 30 miles per hour.
It was annoying and an a little alarming to have them speeding by a yard or so from my door.


The in basket: During an extended motor trip this fall, I found myself stuck in one of the infamous traffic jams that bedevil Los Angeles freeways. A rear-ender on I-10 had all but stopped traffic. During the crawl, probably three dozen motorcycles in several groups passed us driving down the line between the lanes – and between the larger vehicles. A few were probably doing it at 25 or 30 miles per hour.
It was annoying and an a little alarming to have them speeding by a yard or so from my door. And it brought to my mind a comment e-mailed to the Road Warrior during the summer by Frank G.
“I have a problem being sympathetic to motorcyclists.” Frank wrote. “I hear and see these PSA’s on TV and radio about how I’m suppose to be aware of their presence. However, I never hear or see PSA’s stating motorcyclist should not pass on the outside borders of the highway, go between cars in traffic, or fly down the highway at speeds of excess of 90 mph. I don’t want to hear the response that this is only a few riders. That is BUNK. It happens day in and day out by more and more riders. If motorcyclists want respect on the road, they better start earning it.”
The out basket: I imagine a motorcyclist feels pretty dumb inching forward in a traffic jam when it’s possible to pass everybody in the space between the lines of vehicles. The very nature of their vehicles allows them to do things cars can’t. I suspect if I were a motorcyclist, I’d be tempted do it.

But it is illegal. State law says “no person shall operate a motorcycle between lanes of traffic or between adjacent lines or rows of vehicles.” It would warrant a ticket for $101.
What do you say about Frank G.’s point of view, motorcyclists? Do ‘cycle riders expect more attention to the rules of the road from other drivers than they are willing to deliver themselves?

21 thoughts on “Motorcyclists in freeway traffic jams

  1. I too was driving in California recently and found it unnerving to have motorcycles driving inbetween the lanes. However, I later learned that this practice is legal in California. According to the California Highway Patrol’s website, “Lane splitting by motorcycles is permissible but must be done in a safe and prudent manner.”

  2. When I was stationed in California (mid to late 80s), it was perfectly legal for motorcyclists to do exactly what you are describing. It may be illegal HERE, but at that time, it was legal THERE, and most likely still is if you saw it occurring as frequently as you did. Legal there? Perhaps. Smart? Not at all.

    I am not a motorcyclist. I do not trust the travelling public enough to ride one. You can be the most experienced, safest motorcyclist on the road, but all it takes is one inattentive car driver to make everything for naught. Just pointing that out to eliminate any possible bias that may exist in any statement of mine.

  3. Hate to harp on this point, but it just keeps getting deeper over this motorcycle thing. It is simply not useful to say that “motorcyclists” behave in any certain way any more than it is useful to say that “women” or “police officers” do. The category is too broad to assign any characteristics to it that have any meaning. Motorcycle riders are just like everyone else, and riding is a behavior and not an inherent trait. It is like asking whether “drivers” pay attention to the task at hand or whether they are reckless and dangerous. Whether a motorcyclist is responsible or reckless depends on the individual, the circumstances, and, most importantly, the predispositions of the viewer. If a person is inclined to view motorcycle riding as inherently dangerous, he is more likely to see any particular behavior as confirming his prejudice. We see what we expect to see.

  4. The practice of driving between the lanes of traffic is legal in the state of California where it was experienced by your reader. It does have some limitations such as speed differential and if traffic is stopped or moving. It’s called lane splitting and has been up before the Washington State legislature a couple of times trying to become legal in this state. For the un-initiated out of state (California) traveler it can be alarming when motorcycles rush by traffic. But lane splitting has a couple of benefits, it reduces traffic congestion and even though it seems to be a high risk behavior, actual crash data proves it safer than staying in traffic (1).

    As for the earning of respect, what motorcyclists want is visibility. Any motorcyclist can recount numerous experiences of people making direct eye contact and pulling out in front of the motorcycle, being squeezed out of a lane on the freeway by cars changing lanes as if the motorcycle didn’t exist and cars coming too close at stop lights because they focus on the car ahead of the motorcycle. Auto drivers expect to see another auto and the motorcycle does not register in their mind. We need to be seen and recognized.

    Any argument can be made against generalized classes of drivers, the soccer mom with the cell phone, luxury car drivers demanding right of way because of status, or the rice-rocket drivers playing out a video game scenario in real life. There are idiots out there, but you cannot vilify a group because of some individual’s lack of responsibility/respect/courtesy. The best you can do is drive alertly, responsibly and with courtesy toward others and hope it’s infectious.

    (1) Hurt, H.H. Jr., Ouellet, J.V. & Thom D.R. (1981b). Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures. (DOT HS 805 862). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
    (2) http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/00-NHT-212-motorcycle/motorcycle51.html

  5. I suppose the same can be said of people who drive cars. It seems more and more, cars try to turn left into my bike, cut me off, or play chicken with me. It makes me feel like, because a car or truck is bigger, they get to play the part of the “enforcer” to whatever they think the rules of the road are.
    The bottom line is, EVERY operator, whether it be car, truck, motorcycle, etc., deserves to expect FULL attention to the rules of the road. PERIOD.
    I am a 40 year old female that rides a motorcycle, and I am not one of the stereotypes that “Frank G” is referring to. However, I have been party to the type of attitude he verbally displays against motorcyclists, on the road.

    Can’t everyone just play nice?

  6. Personally, I tend to drive more conservatively on my motorcycle than I do when in my truck, because I am more vulnerable. I don’t believe I’ve seen the behavior you mention in your post (it’s called lane-splitting BTW), very often in South Kitsap. If I understood your statement, you were in California when you saw motorcyclists doing this – where it IS legal…

  7. In response to your article in today’s paper it is legal to split traffic in California. There are rules, not always followed but it is still legal. Just a little info, I think Ca is the only state that allows splitting lanes. Passing on the shoulder, all I can say is a lot of cars and bikes do it. Not legal. Randy Jowdy.

  8. I am writing in response to Drivers Say Mororcyclist Must Show Respect to
    Earn it, I interpet that this driver has it in for any motorcyclist. You take
    a few bad apples and label everyone on motorcycles as earning respect. I
    ride a motorcycle from time to time. I think people in cars do need to pay more
    attention to where we are. I was about tipped over a divider on Kitsap Way
    just at the highway overpass. The lady in a Lexus SUV didn’t even see me but
    came across all lanes only to move back over to the right lane. She never
    even realized what she did. I pulled next to her and looked over she never
    even looked back over to even motion a sorry. She was completely oblivious
    to what she did! Even bicyclist don’t see us. My father-in-law was moving
    over to miss a little girl on a bicycle, she was right in the middle of the
    road on Old Belfair Highway just past Bear Creek Store. She looked finally
    when he was in the middle of swerving around her and she went in the
    direction he was swerving, causing him to go into the blackberry bushes. My
    point is it is not always the motorcyclist at fault. I will admitt there is
    some bad apple out there but there are more motorist that don’t pay attention
    when there is a motorcyle right next to them, and end up running them off
    the road. So this person wants respect to give respect, come on! Obviously
    that person don’t know what it feels like to be run off the road and almost
    killed. I say open your eyes and pay attention, and quit complaining on what
    a few bad apples do. Some of them motorcyclists may run down the side of the
    highway because people in cars think that getting right on thier rear tire is
    OK. May not be legal but at least they are not rear-ended by a car. If
    someone is coming at me in a car that is not paying attention to the fact I
    am right in front of them and they are going to run into me you better
    believe I will run down the side of the road or wherever I may need to go
    safely to avoid being hit. Wake up and smell the coffee and pay attention.
    How many motorcyclists have you ran off the raod and didn’t even know it. And
    you want respect? Give me a break.

  9. You need to check the State of California traffic regulations – I believe it
    is legal to ride between the lanes in California.

  10. Are you certain that splitting lanes in California on a motorcycle is illegal? People may not like it and it may not be legal in Washington, but I suggest you check CA laws on this one.

  11. I am terrified of driving near motorcycles, especially behind them. I
    will fully admit that quite a few motorcyclists are safe and
    responsible, but obviously those are NEVER the ones we remember,
    right? I’ve seem them flying down the highway at morbidly high speeds,
    swerving in and out of traffic, and I just think to myself…did they
    forget they have virtually NO protection? They could be pavement
    burger in the blink of an eye, but they just keep going like they
    think they’re immortal. I’m sure that for those types of individuals
    the danger is part of the thrill, but I’d really like for them to
    consider how others would feel seeing the aftermath of one wrong move.

  12. It is illegal in the state of Washington for motorcycles to go between cars during traffic back-ups (lane sharing). In California, it is legal to lane share, however; it must be done safely and speed can not be excessive. I believe it is 25 mph max when cars are stopped and 5 mph above the traffic speed up to the legal speed limit.

  13. You stated in your article that when in LA, Ca. you were upset about the motorcycle’s splitting lanes, Well, here in California it is LEGAL to do just that. The autos we drive are water-cooled, air-conditioned and most are automatics, Most motorcycles are not. I am from Washington and on vacation here in California and, yes, I ride a motorcycle and, yes, I split lanes when all the auto drivers stop to look at an accident on the other side of the freeway and I don’t believe you about how fast these motorcycles were going. I can tell you that splitting lanes is intense. You must watch for cars changing lanes, speeding up, slowing down. Speed is not part of it, And as usual the motorist is not paying attention to their driving.
    RESPECT. You talk about earning respect when the auto drivers can KILL or maim the motorcyclist and use the excuse “I did not see him.” Well, I know you did not see him because putting on your make-up, talking on your cell phone, reading the paper (Have seen people reading a paper back book while driving) distracts you and the motorcycle rider pays. What I am saying is as long as the motoring public shows little or no respect for us motorcycle riders, I will do everything I can to stay away from them.

  14. I have been riding motorcycles for 30 years and have ridden in California several times, I am surprised I made it back. For the first few years I rode like the immortal young man I was. I would always bypass cars backed up at construction flaggers to get to the head of the line, I had enough speeding tickets to warrant a day in DOL Driving school. In 1980, I lost my best friend and riding partner to a truck driver who “didn’t see him”. I became more defensive but still thought it couldn’t happen to me. In 1985 I became a parent. I gained mortality on that day.

    I see more and more drivers that don’t pay attention, run stop signs and red lights in front of all types of vehicles. I drive a full size pick-up, with daytime headlights, but that didn’t stop a Kitsap Transit Vanpool from running the stop sign on Second Street onto Washington crossing two of three lanes so that I had to hit the brakes hard to avoid colliding with the van. When he did notice me instead of moving forward under acceleration he stopped. In the middle of two lanes… Apparently the driver suffered from some version of mental overload and couldn’t make a decision on how to safely extract himself from the situation he caused by initially running the stop sign.

    I digress. It isn’t just a four-wheeled vehicle versus a two-wheeled vehicle issue. It is a general disregard for others. Our specific individual needs far outweigh other drivers’ needs and we feel entitled to drive accordingly.

    The same people who disregard motorcycles probably run tractor-trailer rigs and RV’s off of the road, as well.

  15. I read Monday’s “Road Warrior” and I think one point needs to be
    clarified. In California, not here, riding the white line through a
    traffic stall is legal! I don’t consider it very smart. I used to
    sit in the traffic line on my motorcycle going into the NavSta in San
    Diego and watching the cycles buzz by between lanes and on the
    shoulder. There was usually a motorcycle CHP sitting on the shoulder
    over a small hill handing out tickets to those taking that route.

  16. When I lived in California several years ago it was legal for a motorcycle to go between vehicles stopped or slowed to a crawl on the highway or city streets and I believe it is still legal to split a lane in California.

  17. Responding to Frank’s point of view, I’d like to point out that ‘splitting lanes’ is both legal and encouraged in CA. It has also been shown to be quite safe, and is something all states should adopt. Frank himself gave the best reason why – he was stuck in traffic. Encouraging motorcycle use removes vehicles from those traffic jams, which means less fuel being wasted idling, in addition to the better mileage these vehicles get. The real crux of the matter is that Californians are used to it. I remember feeling like Frank when I first hit CA. At first annoyed, I quickly got used to it.

    Secondarily, I too am a motorcyclist, and I too have no respect for the hot shot, obnoxiously loud, or immature speed freaks that cause guys like Frank to possibly discriminate against our sport. What I disagree with is the impression that these problems aren’t just as pervasive in car drivers. Unfortunately bikers are high profile, a minority, and an easy target.

  18. I’m probably not the first Californian to let you know that ‘splitting the lanes’ on a motorcycle is legal in California. Both the Highway Patrol and the Hells Angels use it extensively. I think Frank G. and the writer of the letter should loosen up on bikers and check their side mirrors more often.
    Your column does a tremendous public service and you can tell by the responses to the “splitting the lanes” feedback that it is widely read. Hey, maybe you can bring to the attention of local law enforcement that ‘stream of traffic’ (another California innovation) is a legitimate reason for exceeding the posted speed limit. Remember, too, that California brought the whole world “Right on a Red” way before it was a politically correct method of saving gas. Washington seems a little behind the curve on getting from A to B.

  19. Please check your facts before answering. In California it is legal for a motorcycle to split lanes. I have been riding bikes since about 1945 and lived in LA for 20. I commuted 30 miles through downtown LA on a bike and yes I did split lanes It saved about 1 hour each way or 2 hours per day. I know it looks dangerous to those non bike riders but there is plenty of space to pass safely.

    As I recall the bike rider can travel no faster that 15 MPH faster than the cars he is passing.

  20. I must respectfully disagree with your statement regarding the illegality of operating a motorcycle between traffic lanes.

    The person explained that they were on a road trip in California.

    The law in California is, I believe, that motorcyclist may operate between traffic lanes in some circumstances.
    The one provided is an example. Another is at off-ramps.

    Perhaps it is illegal in Washington State. Who knows about other states?

  21. First, a little clarification – it IS legal in California to “split
    lanes”, which is the official term for motorcyclists who travel between
    two lanes on the freeways. Not something I would want to do (and yes I
    am a motorcyclist), but in California it is legal, so (you have) no legal gripe in that regard.

    Second, if I may indulge in a little hyperbole, I hate how ALL those car
    drivers change lanes without signaling, tear down the roads at 90 miles
    an hour, and throw their lit cigarettes out their windows. To paraphrase
    Frank G. “I don’t want to hear the response that this is only a few
    drivers. That is BUNK. It happens day in and day out by more and more
    drivers.” So therefore all car drivers must be at fault.

    I don’t ask for more rights or respect when I ride my motorcycle than I
    do when I drive my car. Those PSA’s he objects to are trying to get
    drivers to be aware of motorcycles, not give them more rights. People in
    general are not as aware of motorcycles on the roads. That is why so
    many motorcycle accidents are the result of cars and trucks turning left
    in front of an oncoming motorcycle. We are trained and attuned to seeing
    large vehicles on the roads. But too often the smaller motorcycle isn’t
    picked up by the driver’s “radar”.

    Are the PSA’s that tell us to give 18-wheelers more room to brake asking
    us to give more rights to truckers? Are PSA’s that ask us to look out
    for pedestrians trying to give more rights to pedestrians?

    If a motorcyclist breaks the law, they should be ticketed. And many of
    them are. Just as many car drivers who break the law get tickets. But
    just because some of them don’t get a ticket shouldn’t mean it’s open
    season on the rest of us – which seems to be what Frank G. would like.

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