A bill that would have given motorcyclists new rights on the road has failed in the Utah legislature for this year. Known as “lane splitting” or “lane filtering,” the idea that motorcycles should be allowed to pass other vehicles in the same lane (or between lanes) when moving in the same direction has been gaining traction in recent years. It received a boost recently when an academic study found lane splitting to be a safer alternative for motorcycle operators.
Last year, California became the first state to make lane splitting explicitly legal (their law took effect January 1, 2017). The California law hasn’t been without controversy, one reason being that the state has no way to tell if the measure improves or decreases safety because useful information isn’t tracked.
Virtually every argument made in favor of lane splitting is based on a single fourteen-month study from California. That report found a number of favorable outcomes with lane splitting, including a reduction in rear-end collisions and a decrease in certain injuries. But the study was not all positive. It found that lane splitting at higher speeds (>50 mph) or with the motorcycle moving more than 15 mph faster than the vehicles around it increased risks. The authors also acknowledged that their data collection was not ideal, one flaw being that the study only compared collisions after the fact—it couldn’t reach any conclusions about whether lane splitting or not lane splitting in similar situations was more or less safe.
Lane splitting had been legally tolerated in California for many years before the new law, which might mean that drivers and motorcyclists in that state are more used to the practice and better able to cope with it than drivers in another state would be.
Nonetheless, while the California law might be seen as a tentative success, it has also been mentioned in some dramatic crashes. A motorcyclist was injured earlier this month when he struck two cars while lane splitting; however, he was allegedly speeding and fleeing police, which doesn’t make for a fair comparison.
Only two days later, another motorcyclist was killed in a lane-splitting crash; a driver in that crash didn’t stop and is sought as part of a hit-and-run investigation, but it’s not clear from reports which of several vehicles caused the crash. It is, unfortunately, very easy to find other crashes—some fatal—where lane splitting is mentioned, although it’s difficult to know if it was a factor. California sees between 400 and 500 fatal motorcycle crashes from all causes total each year; Utah, by comparison, sees about forty most years.
While the bill had many supporters, it also had many opponents. Some had suggested that it faced an uphill battle purely because of the legislative calendar, which gave it a small chance of being thoroughly debated before the end of the session.
Utah is also one of the states without a comprehensive helmet requirement for motorcycle riders, which may have indirectly affected the fate of this law. Supporters of lane splitting acknowledged that the much-referenced California study noted that part of the observed safety effect was due to lane-splitting bikers wearing more protective helmets on average than others (in California, a helmet of some kind is required for all motorcycle users).
We don’t have a strong opinion about the Utah lane splitting proposal, but it seems to us that something with serious potential consequences—good or bad—should be properly studied before a commitment is made. At Craig Swapp & Associates, we work with the victims of motorcycle crashes and see the results, and we’d much rather that Utah err on the side of caution than rush into a change without a full understanding of the consequences.
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