February 12, 2013

Foon Rhee: Can't we all share the highway safely?

For me, one of the most unnerving parts of driving in California is when motorcycles rocket past, inches away, in between lanes on the freeway.

For me, one of the most unnerving parts of driving in California is when motorcycles rocket past, inches away, in between lanes on the freeway.

While lane-splitting is legal – California is the only state that allows it – the law is murky. So it's about time that state officials have come up with some common-sense rules of the road.

Under the first-ever written guidelines on lane-splitting, motorcyclists should go no more than 10 mph faster than other traffic and not do so when traffic is going 30 mph or faster. Also, it's advised to go between the lanes farthest to the left and to avoid the maneuver near onramps and exits.

The combined impact? Bikers would go no faster than 39 mph when lane-splitting. As anyone who ventures on highways knows, some are going much faster than that when they speed past long lines of stopped cars.

Sgt. Mark Pope of the California Highway Patrol says the guidelines are meant only to educate the driving public. Since they're not in the law, violating them won't mean a ticket. Since they're entirely voluntary, they will only make a difference if motorcyclists actually follow them.

Vehicle drivers are also part of the safety equation. The California Office of Traffic Safety, which also worked on the guidelines, admonishes motorists that it is illegal to intentionally impede a motorcycle and that they "should not take it upon themselves to discourage motorcyclists from lane-splitting."

As The Bee's Tony Bizjak reported, 7 percent of drivers in a recent survey said they have tried to block a lane-splitting cycle; only 53 percent knew lane-splitting was legal, if done "in a safe and prudent manner."

Motorcyclists are the ones who are at most risk. There were 414 motorcycle fatalities in California in 2011, a 15 percent increase from 2010. Deaths had dropped dramatically in 2009 after 11 years of increases.

The state has contracted with UC Berkeley researchers to study all collisions involving motorcycles, including whether motorcyclists are wearing helmets, drinking or lane-splitting. The yearlong study is just starting. Depending on the findings, more safety measures could be recommended.

Many motorcyclists won't be happy even with these voluntary guidelines. In the survey, 87 percent said they lane-split. They say that it protects them from being rear-ended by cars, and that many motorcycle engines can quickly overheat if they have to idle in traffic.

I know this because when I wrote about this subject in California Forum in November 2010, I received some irate emails and got flamed on blogs. One motorcyclist challenged me to take a ride with him; I took a pass.

At the risk of more angry responses, I think these guidelines are a good start – and I bet a lot of drivers agree.

The goal is to make our highways safer for everyone, motorcyclists included. There shouldn't be any argument about that.

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