What is Lane Splitting for Motorcycles—And Why Should You Do It?

Plenty of naysayers advise motorcyclists against lane splitting or react in negative ways when they see it happen. Law enforcement may even pay special attention to motorcyclists in traffic to try and catch them breaking the law. But there are more benefits to the practice than you might think—and it’s not against the law everywhere. So what is lane splitting for motorcycles, and what are the potential reasons why a rider would choose to do it?

What is Lane Splitting for Motorcycles?

Lane splitting for motorcycles refers to bikes which weave between traffic that’s moving the same direction as they are. Technically, lane splitting is the term for riders who are moving while the traffic around them is also moving. When traffic is at a standstill, but motorcycles keep moving, that is a different practice called “filtering.”

In most accounts of lane splitting experiences, people tend to combine splitting and filtering into a single category. In truth, they are similar; if traffic stops while you’re navigating slowly through it, it doesn’t make much sense to stop and weave back into a lane, so you may switch between “splitting” and “filtering” depending on driver behavior and road conditions.

But whether you’re in front of or behind a vehicle that’s not paying attention, it’s more dangerous to stay in the flow of (much larger) traffic than it is to branch out ahead—hence the splitting in the first place.

Lane sharing is an entirely different beast, too; lane sharing between motorcycles is a less disputed adventure. At the same time, its benefits aren’t clearly discussed anywhere, except in terms of keeping riders together throughout their ride.

Multiple motorcycles sharing a lane (not riding single file) is lane sharing, while lane sharing with a vehicle is not exactly possible nor recommended. When motorcycles lane split, they aren’t in one vehicle’s lane or another; they ‘ride the line’ between the two lanes, taking up as little space as possible and giving other vehicles their breathing room.

Of course, just because motorcyclists take advantage of lane splitting, it doesn’t mean other drivers appreciate the practice. Legality is another element of lane splitting and one that’s not always clear-cut.

Laws Around Lane Splitting

Laws are somewhat divided about motorcycle lane splitting, and specifics vary based on the state. In California, for example, DMV highlights that there is no law blocking motorcyclists from lane splitting. Their website states: “California law does not allow or prohibit motorcycles from passing other vehicles proceeding in the same direction within the same lane.”

In the past, California attempted to pass legislation on the topic, but court action blocked them from finalizing anything. Few court cases center on lane splitting issues, so it seems the subject hasn’t taken priority for lawmakers.

However, California isn’t the only state to take a passive stance on the subject. Twelve other states, plus Washington D.C., don’t explicitly ban nor endorse lane splitting. And since so few court cases have disputed the issue one way or another, it’s hard to say how any single law enforcement officer might respond to seeing a motorcyclist lane split. Keeping in mind the differences among the states, you should check your local laws for more information before deciding for or against lane splitting on your next ride.

That said, the American Motorcyclist Association wholeheartedly endorses lane splitting in California, citing studies which suggest it enhances motorcycle safety. Other countries either endorse or fail to comment on the practice, which tells us that there isn’t a global argument over lane splitting—it’s an everyday thing for countries which have more two-wheeled vehicles than they do four-wheeled ones.

Why Do Motorcycles Lane Split?

As the AMA notes, one study suggests lane splitting keeps motorcycle riders safer because it allows them to move between vehicles in traffic, giving them an escape route where there is congestion. Because many accidents involve motorists who don’t see motorcyclists or their bikes, keeping moving in slow-moving traffic is usually a smart idea for the riders.

Safety should be every rider’s top priority, and lane splitting helps achieve the goal of staying safe, according to research on the topic. Plus, you’re more visible when you’re in front of traffic rather than behind it. But what other reasons do motorcyclists have for lane splitting (or filtering)?

Proponents of lane splitting note that it keeps traffic flowing, partly because cars and trucks can then take up the space a motorcyclist leaves behind. While larger vehicles are stuck lined in up in lanes, motorcycles can jump out of line and close gaps which are both unsafe for them and inconvenient for other drivers.

Plus, if you’ve ever been on a bike in stop-and-go traffic, you know how frustrating it is to shift in and out of the right gear constantly, balance while moving supremely slow, and put your foot down to keep yourself upright when you finally do stop (if only for a moment).

Riding a motorcycle isn’t as straightforward as operating a larger motor vehicle, especially when you consider the weight of your bike and how tough it is to hold it upright when it’s not moving. Unless you have a 3 wheel motorcycle, you are responsible for balancing the bike even as you crawl along in traffic—and that can sap the energy right out of you.

Overall, it’s easier to keep moving in traffic when the alternative is rough on your body and your bike. Maneuvering between vehicles also makes a motorcycle rider’s trip even faster, so saving time during your commute is another perk. But in comparison with the potential environmental effects, shaving a few minutes off the drive is nothing.

Benefits of Lane Splitting

Many riders choose a motorcycle because of the innate convenience and agility, not to mention great gas mileage. And with motorcycle values remaining consistent over time (with the right care and maintenance), a bike is an exceptional investment for most riders, even if you don’t choose an electric bike for cleaner emissions and lower fuel costs.

But the benefits don’t stop at the low costs and sheer enjoyment of feeling the wind on your face.

Lane splitting is another of the benefits of motorcycle riding that car drivers just can’t enjoy. While some motorcycles are arguably just as bad for the environment as cars are, one of the benefits of lane splitting is cutting down on time cars sit in traffic jams.

Research has shown that for each motorcycle that splits lanes, they’re helping to cut down on the time the cars around them are polluting the air with dangerous emissions. That’s right: lane splitting helps you get where you’re going more safely (and quickly) and helps save the environment, too.

You may not have been thinking of mother earth when shopping for a motorcycle, but the perks of riding versus driving are non-negotiable.

Final Thoughts

Plenty of people have opinions about lane splitting, but the research on the benefits of the practice speak for themselves. And while the legality of lane splitting in traffic isn’t clear, depending on where you live, it has the potential to improve your overall riding experience and other drivers’ experiences, too.

Being stuck in traffic is never fun, but lane splitting can help cut down on emissions of every car on the road, get motorcyclists out of harm’s way, and keep freeways from getting congested. It’s a win-win—if you’re not getting ticketed for it in a state that doesn’t approve.