Get there faster!
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 the 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 through 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.
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 8 mph 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 35-45 mph. On a surface street, that might mean 15 mph. Your relative speed to that traffic also matters. If you’re going 55 mph 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 judgment, but figure a 5-15 mph speed difference. Don’t be a jerk and you should be alright.
Focus: What’s Going On in Your Head
More than technical operating skills, splitting lanes requires the ability to be present, evaluate and make advance decisions about your course of travel while maintaining the ability to react quickly to unexpected events.
More than anything else, you need to use your eyes to take in as much as you can about your environment. This means seeing more than just what your eyes are focused on. When I’m blasting through traffic on the 405, I’m not picking out things to focus on or look at, but instead keeping my eyes up and forward with a focal point somewhere roughly a 1/8 mile ahead of me. If you have targets, you run the risk to fixate on them, block everything else out and set a collision course. Don’t do that. Keep your field of view wide and avoid focusing on one specific thing. The immediate foreground isn’t in focus, but I still give it awareness. Learn to use the out of focus corners of your vision and if a car grabs your attention, slow down and make sure it’s safe to pass them. At first, this will be extremely hard and will limit your speed. If people surprise you and you feel an adrenaline rush, that’s bad. Slow down until you can see where you’re going and where you are. When you’re first starting out, it will be mentally draining to pay so much attention to so many different things. Take it easy and you’ll get better. Once you can see all the cars, start paying attention to the negative space between them. Search for narrow spots and prepare for them in advance.
In addition to mentally calculating your position in relation to others, you must also be able to evaluate traffic to spot untrustworthy drivers. It’s like a Rorschach test you don’t want to fail. Look in the driver's mirrors and back windows. Are they talking on the phone, watching a movie, eating/shaving/brushing their teeth, screaming at their kids, etc? These people are what I would call untrustworthy. You can’t depend on them to stay in the center of their lane, use their turn signals or look before they make snap lane changes.
Be extremely judgmental toward other drivers. If there’s ever a time to stop being politically correct, it’s when you’re sandwiched between lanes on the 10 freeway. Start profiling. Is that lady driving an Escalade on 24″ rims while texting on her rhinestone-encrusted Blackberry? Does she have a “Children are a gift from God sticker” on her back bumper? When I see this lady, I give her a wide berth. How about the guy in the ’89 Civic with a double-decker wing, coffee can exhaust, seat leaned WAY back and broken driver side mirror? How about the old man in the beat to heck minivan? Would you trust these people with your life? If a person gives me any reason to think that they might be aggressive, absent-minded, stupid or is otherwise suspicious, I give them my full attention. People in unfamiliar places (I’m looking at you 113-year-old lady with Nevada plates in the Benz) tend to dart across four lanes of traffic to make that off-ramp they weren’t expecting.
People that have a lot of bumper stickers tend to make bad decisions. Riders of Goldwings and Harleys will often attempt to lane-split, holding you up, and rarely check their mirrors. Don’t even get me started on Prius drivers. When you come across anyone that doesn’t immediately come off as a competent and trustworthy driver, slow down and wait for them to make whatever bad move it is they’re going to make. If it seems like it’s going to be a while, go around or wait for them to stop and proceed cautiously.
There are no hard and fast rules on who you can trust, but I’ve found that most guys wearing flat-billed hats in lifted trucks are actually very good drivers. They pay extra attention to motorcyclists, move over for you and often wave. If drivers wave at you, wave back. Keep them happy and they’ll keep being nice. Professionals on their way to work, often driving boring commuter cars, are generally trustworthy. Other motorcyclists wearing complete gear on dirty bikes are usually safe. If you commute on your motorcycle, you’ll notice that you end up seeing the same people every day. You’ll cross paths with the same motorcyclists on opposite sides of the freeway, and see many of the same car drivers. Knowing the roads and freeways you ride help quite a bit as well.
Watch for Patterns
You need to develop a sixth sense to tell you what cars are going to do before they do it. Don’t worry, that’s not as paranormal as it sounds. On the highway, is one lane of traffic slowing down while another continues apace? If so, expect drivers to try and dart from the slowing lane into the one where traffic is still flowing. In stopped traffic, has one lane started move before another? Again, expect drivers to shift into lanes with higher speeds, even if it's futile.
By lining these cars up for a pass as they’re adjacent to each other, this rider is reasonably sure that neither car will attempt to merge lanes.
Riding between lanes of equal speed traffic, watch for gaps to open up that cars could turn into. Avoid sitting next to those gaps. Sometimes, passing two cars while they’re next to each other is safer than waiting until one is in front of the other. If a car has no way to shift lanes, then it probably won’t.
Take Advantage of the Safety Benefits
While navigating a constantly shifting, unpredictable, deadly obstacle course does have its risks, splitting lanes will help you overcome some of the inherent safety deficiencies a motorcycle is saddled with.
Lacking any sort of crumple zone and visual awareness among dozy drivers, we’re uniquely exposed to rear-end collisions. Instead of sitting in an empty lane at a red light, waiting for a truck to rear end you, pulling in front of a car gives you a free crumple zone and much more visual area and lights to catch the attention of that texting teenage girl approaching from the rear.
There’s a Lot More to Learn
By now you’ve read almost 2,000+ words about lane splitting. The reason I have so much to say is that I’ve gathered each little bit of my lane splitting advice, near miss stories and observations over three years of commuting 80 plus miles per day on four of LA’s busiest freeways in all weather conditions. While this lays out a framework and some things to keep in mind to get started, this is a skill that is truly about practice.