California Drivers, Motorcyclists Fight Over Traffic Jam Etiquette

San Francisco traffic Photograph by George Rose/Getty Images

Police officers know about traffic accidents. Does that mean they should they be allowed to issue safety guidelines? That’s the question behind an ongoing California controversy that has pit motorcyclists against drivers on that most incendiary of Golden State issues: traffic-jam etiquette.

The brouhaha erupted last month when the California Highway Patrol (CHP) removed safety guidelines it had posted online regarding lane-splitting, a maneuver where motorcyclists ride between two lanes of traffic, typically when traffic is stalled. For bikers, it’s a cherished time-saver. It’s also legal but dangerous when bikers act recklessly or cars block passage.

The CHP worked with bikers and lane-splitting opponents alike to develop safety guidelines on the practice, posting them online in early 2013. The guidelines recommended that only “competent enough” riders should lane split, and also that they should reduce speeds to 30 mph and pass only between the first and second lanes. The guidelines added general safe-riding tips, and reminded automobile drivers that lane-splitting is legal and that intentionally blocking a motorcyclist is dangerous and against the law.

The undoing began when Ken Mandler, a Sacramento career coach and former newsletter publisher, complained to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL), which is responsible for ensuring that state agencies don’t issue “underground regulations.” Mandler alleged that the highway patrol had issued regulations “that allow reckless behavior on the road.” After his second complaint, which Mandler called “an experiment” to see if another state agency could “rein in” the CHP, the OAL asked the CHP to remove the guidelines.

“[The OAL] thought maybe it’s encouraging something that can be a dangerous situation,” says Chuck Koro, a Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in motorcycle cases. Media stories referring to the “new rules” underscored the perception; lane-splitters  “now have the official blessing of the California Highway Patrol,” said one.

Meanwhile, the original question of how to improve motorcycle safety has gotten lost. California is home to 800,000 bikers, more than any other state. Their numbers are rising, as are accidents. In 2011 nearly 11,000 were injured and 417 died, a 20 percent increase in fatalities over the year before. Statistically, a rider is 28 times more likely to be killed than someone in a car. When it comes to lane-splitting, though, studies indicate that injuries are rare when all road users act responsibly.

The American Motorcyclist Association has launched a petition to re-instate the CHP guidelines, and points to research indicating the greater risk to bikers is rear-ending stopped cars or striking cars that have turned to block passage. AMA’s Western States Representative Nick Haris says he sympathizes with drivers who are upset by reckless bikers, but that educating those bikers is “the exact reason the guidelines were developed.”

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