Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Motorcycle Diaries, Pt III: Lanesplitting

In honor of the great big orange ball in the sky, which finally made an appearance again this week after being stuck behind rainclouds for what feels like months (and, yes I know, I'm in California and have no right to complain about the weather, let's just move on), I am focusing my steely-eyed (okay, no, actually extremely nearsighted) gaze today on the subject of motorcycling.

This is not me, nor my bike, but I kinda wish it was.

Not that I haven't been riding, even given the crappy weather. Because we only have one car, and because my job is 35 miles from my home, and because the public transportation system does not easily accommodate my particular commute, I take the motorcycle pretty much every day, unless the rain is just *so* bad that to do so would just be insane. But I have ridden in the rain quite a bit this winter. As an experience I would rate it someplace on the scale between Pretty Shitty and Remarkably Unpleasant. I mean, even with raingear on, it's just not fun. The roads are slick, I'm even *less* visible than in normal weather, and, ya know, there's no windshield wipers on motorcycle helmets. So the choice, regarding the latter problem, is to either constantly wipe the water away with one of my gloved hands, or to keep the helmet partially open--which then leaves my face exposed to the rain. Overall, though some folks claim to love riding in the rain, I think the sealed metal cage/heater/car stereo of a good ol' car really just trumps the motorcycle in inclement weather. Sorry, hardcore biker dudes! But, hey, I *do* ride in it. In fact, on most rainy days, my bike is guaranteed to be one of the only ones in the EA lot. Everyone else is either a lot smarter, or just has that spare car to use.

But here's how I meant to start off this blog. I just remembered. I was going to start off with this question:

"Are you one of those crazy motorcyclists who zip in and out between lanes all the time? Because that just makes me so mad and seems so dangerous!"

This question, and variations of it, might be the number one question I get when I tell people I ride. And the answer is that, yes, yes I am one of those crazy motorcyclists who do that. Because, really, if you're not doing that, you're missing half the glory (well, when we're talking about urban commutes, anyway) of riding in the first place. We don't have to be stuck in traffic.

CalTrans put these signs up recently. Lanesplitting bikers rejoiced heartily!

The first thing to know about lanesplitting (or lanesharing, which is the now more politically correct term to use, for motorcyclists who are trying to educate the non-riding public on the practice), is that it is perfectly legal in California. This doesn't really matter a whole lot when it comes to the safety issues, which I'll get to in a minute, but it is still important to note, since many drivers just assume that motorcyclists are doing something "wrong" when they're doing it. (In fact, just last night, I lanesplitted right behind a motorcycle cop for about 10 miles). It may annoy you, and seem "unfair" somehow, when you're stuck in gridlock or stop-and-go traffic, and you see a motorcycle coming up between two lanes, but, legally, it's pretty much a Tough Shit situation for ya, my friend. You can get a bike yourself if you want to avoid the traffic.

This is why it makes me laugh whenever I see a car or truck decide, for some idiotic reason, that they want to "block" me as they see me coming from behind between lanes--moving over so I can't pass. I assume that it's some kind of misguided righteousness: "He can wait his turn, like me!" Whatever the reason, that person is in the wrong. And, of course, they're going to lose that battle anyway, because all I have to do is go around the other way, which I do every single time, losing not even 2 seconds in the process.

You may wonder why this motorcycle practice is legal. In fact, the reason is not only sound, but I am grateful for it every day---and yes, from a safety standpoint, not just for the convenience of it. The main reason, as I understand it, is that the California Highway Patrol simply wishes that motorcycles keep moving when on the highway. Think about it. In a crawling, stop-and-go, or completely stopped traffic situation, the chances of rear-end collisions, fender-benders, etc always goes up. And who is going to get it the worst if one occurs? The unprotected sitting duck on the motorized bike, that's who. We are allowed to keep moving so that we don't get hit. It's really as simple as that.

I'll acknowledge what some of you are thinking: There are tons of terrible, assholish, irresponsible lanesplitters on the road. Just as there are with automobile drivers, there are motorcyclists who are just far too aggressive and thoughtless, putting both themselves and everyone else around them on the road in danger. Believe me, I get it. A few of those dudes pass me every day too. (I just move to the inside of the lane and wave them on to pass me). They lanesplit too fast and they cut it too close. When I see these guys (and inevitably, it's guys), all I can think is, "your time will come."

Here's me on my normal daily commute!

I do not know exactly what the law is, if any, regarding the speed that lanesplitters may travel, but I do know that, unofficially, the accepted wisdom is that you go no more than 10-15 mph at most above the current flow of traffic. That means if it's at a dead stop on the freeway, you should be lanesplitting at about 10 MPH. Why? It's obvious. You need enough reaction time when (forget "if") a car in either of the lanes you're splitting doesn't see you and tries to change lanes right into you. How often will something like this happen? Try every day. My bike is big enough and loud enough (with the standard pipes) that most drivers can hear me coming, but that's not even remotely a guarantee of safety. Every day someone will change lanes while I'm splitting, because they don't see me.

Here's the thing though, and this is the key to all successful motorcycle riding: We see you. That's all that a motorcyclist (well, a smart one, anyway) is doing on the road: watching and reacting. When I took the Motorcycle Safety Class way back, we were preached the gospel of the SIPDE system: Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide, Engage. This is what we're doing over and over, every second, while riding. Every second I'm on the bike is spent doing everything I can to stay alive. And to lanesplit without getting bashed means that you have to be going slow enough to be able to hit those brakes if someone a car length ahead starts moving into the lane.

It's not foolproof, of course. The one accident I've had so far, years ago, on a different bike, was for this very thing: A guy (on his cellphone) merging right into me from the right. I had done everything I could in advance. I was in full-on SIPDE mode, too. In Scanning and Identifying, I'd seen the guy on his phone ahead of me. Person on cellphone always = "get away from this person." The Predict phase is, "this asshole won't see me because he's yapping on the phone, and will therefore merge into me." So, that night, at that instant, I Decided and Engaged my split-second decision: Hit the accelerator and get past him, quickly. But I wasn't quick enough. He did, in fact, merge without looking, and his left front bumper hit my right wheel--I'd almost made it. Miraculously, I didn't get hurt or even fall over, but the bike itself was totaled. (And after I got a new bike, I was scared off of lanesplitting for awhile, until I couldn't take it anymore.)

The fact is, if you are on a motorcycle, it is just a glorious thing to be able to do. I save myself an insane amount of time every day by doing it. As I zip through the lanes, past the crawling parking lot of frustrated drivers, I thank Xanthor every day that I have this way out. Even when traffic is moving, the ability to lanesplit will allow me to get past incredibly annoying situations, like, most often, the selfish or obtuse dillweeds going too slow in the fast lane, not moving over to the right, and thereby backing up the highway for miles. This is something else I see nearly every day. I'll be lanesplitting through crawling traffic, wondering if there's an accident ahead, or if it's just a bad, crowded day, only to get to the head of the clump of cars and see a completely open highway, but no one able to go fast because some moron is going 50 in the fast lane. Thankfully, I can zip right around him--but I sure feel sorry for all the drivers stuck behind him. (And it makes me think, every single time, that the CHP oughta ticket those folks sometimes for impeding the flow of traffic.) On the autobahn in Germany, those people would seriously just get run off the road. If there's one thing the Europeans definitely have over Americans, it's the fundamental understanding that the left lane is for passing . And if someone comes up on your ass behind you in that lane, you don't be a dick or righteous Keeper of the Speed Limit---you just move the fuck over.

Fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn

So: I love lanesplitting. To keep myself honest and aware of the dangers, though, I've made myself watch some scary, nasty videos. And I make myself read every single news article when yet another rider goes down, often when they were lanesplitting. It's a constant reality check. Another thing I do, which I got inspired from doing on a motorcycle forum I hang out at, is I imagine that there are photos of my wife and kid on my handlebars. This has stopped me more times than I can count from taking that chance, and just being patient instead. Because the temptation is constant. "Can I squeeze between those two trucks? Because if I do, it'll be clear sailing, I can see it.") It's just not worth it. If I just sit back and relax, a better moment will come. There's simply no place for impatience on a motorcycle. I've had it, believe me, and I usually end up regretting it every time. Not because I've hurt myself, or hit anything, or anything physically bad whatsoever, but just because, in the end, I know I've saved myself, what, a couple seconds? But had it not gone my way, well, who knows what horrible consequence could have happened? I'm making literally hundreds of split-second decisions every single time I ride. I'm not happy with every one of them every time, but I do my best to keep in mind that, in the end, getting to where I'm going alive is the one thing that matters most.

Does all this seem stressful to you? It is, but it isn't. Think of it like skiing, if you've done that. 99% of the time you are just having a kickass great time. It's fun, it's a thrill, it makes you happy. At the same time, you are concentrating intently on getting down that mountain without breaking your head open. Even if you're a veteran and it's all second nature to you and you aren't consciously thinking about it, your every microsecond is also spent--while having a grand ol' time--making one decision after another with your body. It's the same thing on a motorcycle. For me, for those who ride, it is just a constant thrill and source of happiness. But with great power....well, you know the rest.

Ride safe,


Graham said...

Another great motorcycling piece, Jeff. Thank you.

I don't know about you, but as a sportbike rider, my dream rides involve a twisty road, smooth pavement, a clear view ahead, and no cops or traffic. Getting the bike leaned over and experiencing the magic of G forces is why I ride.

That said, there is a bizarre satisfaction that comes from navigating busy traffic (whether urban or highway) in an efficient, yet safe manner. It requires just as much focus as blitzing a back road, and the stakes are just as high.

The way motorcycles force you to use four of the five senses makes riding one an exercise in responding to stimuli (yes, even smell - if you can smell a farm, for example, odds are that some of what you smell is lurking slickly at the apex of a corner close by). The sheer volume of stimuli that comes from riding in traffic makes it that much more of a challenge.

I'm never bored commuting on a bike. I'm always bored commuting in a car. It's as simple as that.

Karl Rosner said...

Your stories of riding kind of make me want to learn how to. If I can land a stable job I'm totally going to give it a shot!

Anonymous said...

and knowing is half the battle

lowlight said...

I plan on riding eventually, and I could definitely see myself using lanesplitting. But the biggest problem is that people don't know when and when not to do it! I Just spent a month driving in Tokyo, and the amount of idiots on their scooters and motorcycles (and bicycles!) weaving between traffic at the worst of times is absurd. Even when it's pitch dark, pouring rain, heavy fast-moving traffic, you will have some moron flying out of nowhere between you and a car, or you and the sidewalk (or barrier, as is often the case). You REALLY have to look out for these retards, and it gives me perspective of when to use the tactic when I start riding.

Anonymous said...

Okay, this might not be the right place, but don't you think that calling your daughter "wotta nerd!" for not stopping to do her homework for getting Mexican food and mocha is gonna get you in trouble by your daughter? Even your wife won't be able to protect you from your daughter's wrath.

Jeff Green said...

lol :) Nah, I basically wrote that tweet right in front of her. It was just another way to goad her into going with me. Anyway, I lost. She stayed at home and did her homework. I'm totally proud of her. :)

Anonymous said...

It seems like riding a motorcycle involves a lot of "zipping".

Anonymous said...

I'd like to thank you Jeff for your Motor Cycle Diaries articles, the first two really gave me the enthusiasm and drive to get a bike. Been driving since November and really enjoying it, so much more fun than Cars.

For me car driving is like a video game, sealed off and disconnected (and I don't enjoy driving games). While biking I get to enjoy the scenery, sense of freedom and openness.

A. Mini Mouse said...

Um, considering that you hold a sign that says "fall risk" across your chest AND you also collapsed in Spain, don't you think it's a bit dangerous for you to be riding a motorcycle in heavy rain AND wind?

Will someone please think of your children?

Santiago said...

Just got a bike and started riding. Reading your first motorcycle blog made me want to get into it. Ive got my ninja 500 and im having alot of fun. Besides that, though, i am constantly scanning the road and seeing everything and anything that could kill me. Its so much fun.

teoliit said...

Hey Jeff, this is totally unrelated to your blog post

I just wanted to say that there's a real vacuum after you CGW / GFW guys. There's hardly any critical, insightful or thought provoking games writing nowadays. All you people who had something to say have moved on =(


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the column!

Mike said...

Jeff, it would be great if you would post the url's of any good motorcycle web sites you frequent. I'm always looking for good ways to spend my time when I'm not riding. :)

Stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen said...


Is that a reminder for those car drivers that miss hitting a motorcycle the first time?

Tristessa said...

I don't ride a motorcycle and barely know anyone who does these days. I feel like I learned something about riding that I didn't know.

As for drivers...I'm in my early 40's and have never driven a car. I'd been in the practice of riding a bicycle to work for years and my time in New Mexico was enough to get me to stop that. The drivers there not only hate motorcyclists, they hate bicyclists too. I can't tell you how many times I'd nearly been squashed by people who didn't look - and sometimes they'd even drift into the cycling lane.

It doesn't stop there. Ever walk someplace and try to cross a street in front of a driver too busy looking at the traffic on the left so they can make a right turn? Oh, the number of times they started turning before looking back the the right - and nearly running me over.

Drivers are a menace!

Monkey said...

I love that you claim legality and righteousness for your lanesplitting (and some completely un-researched, un-cited, vague claims of safety based on the same kind of common sense that keeps dim-witted bicyclists riding against traffic), but want to call the keepers of the speed limit in the left lane dillweeds when they are being righteous and legal just like the glorious gold-nimbussed lanesplitter that is Jeff Green. Are those wrong-headed drivers that block you crossing out of their lane? If not, they aren’t doing anything illegal--just like you aren’t when lanesplitting. Amazing! But somehow their self-centered, but legal, actions are bad, but yours are an exquisite assertion of freedom and legality.

Mark said...

Wait, Mr. Cellphone Asshole hit your right wheel? You sure that's not your ride in that first pic?

Jeff Green said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Green said...

Why you'd choose to come to my personal blog and pick a fight with me on a post about something I love is a mystery, but, okay dude.

The difference between motorists clogging the left lane and lanesplitting motorcyclists is that the former affects everyone on the road. It's also just a matter of common courtesy. They put up those "Slower Traffic Keep Right" signs for a reason. Of course it's not "illegal," but why *not* move over if people behind you want to pass? As long as it's safe to move right-- would you choose not to just for the sake of everyone else on the road? Lanesplitters aren't impeding you or affecting your life in any way, other than the fact that they're getting ahead of you (without slowing you down).

And, okay, you're calling into question the safety reasons I cited? Like...I'd bother lying about it? The fact that you also diss bicycle riders tells me you basically just have some kind of chip on your shoulder against two-wheelers. My recommendation? Get one yourself and enjoy life a little more. Seething and hating from inside your car makes you a bit unpleasant, even on the Internet! Thanks for stopping by though.

George said...

Funny, I had heard, when I was little, that lane-splitting was legal in California, but only below 20 mph... not sure where I got that idea, but coincidentally it is also included in a bill introduced in Texas a year ago tomorrow, though they also say you shouldn't be going more than 5 miles per hour faster than the flow of traffic.

I had also heard that that lane-splitting was originally because the typically air-cooled motocycle engines (unlike typically water-cooled car engines) might overheat or otherwise be damaged if forced to idle for long periods of time, like how most sharks sink and eventually die if they stop swimming. The air-cooled jusitification is all over the net, and I'm curious how true it is...

To "Monkey," yes, actually going slowly on the freeway *is* illegal. See here and California Vehicle Code Violations 22400, 22400a, and 22400b Why do I know? A friend's mother got a ticket in San Diego for doing 50 in a 65. The problem is that traffic normally moves at 85 in the left lane. Note that, in the post, the drivers Jeff calls dillweeds are doing "50" and going "too slow in the fast lane," and that his phrase "keepers of the speed limit" was a statement of praise about something that Germans *don't* do.

Bravo, Jeff, and thanks for opening my eyes to the way motorcyclists think. As an avid driver and cyclist, I never really thought about how riding a motorcycle must be different.

Francis said...

Does it help your viability if you coat your helmet visor with RainX?

halojones-fan said...

Jeff: Thank you for pointing out that lane-splitting is a slow-speed thing. I don't mind when motorcyclists cut between stopped cars. I do mind when motorcyclists weave between corner-to-corner cars going 50 mph.

As for going slow: If there's heavy traffic, I don't stomp on the gas when the lane clears, because a half-mile down the road it'll just back up again where there's a hill or a merge. Why waste gas? Of course, I stay out of the left lane UNLESS I'M GODDAMN PASSING SOMEONE.

arseholes Obeying The Speed Limit When And Where They Choose is bad enough, but it's almost as bad that people can't seem to keep their damn speed up when they go up a hill. I drive north on 101 in the morning, and without fail there are severe backups anywhere that there's an underpass. No merges, no turns, no debris, just Going Up A Hill.

trip said...

Jeff, I doubt you remember, but I have emailed with you on the topic of bikes many years ago. Pre blog, pre twitter, and all that. Back during those glory CGW days.

25 years of riding, and I will not ride in the rain unless I'm totally stuck and have to. I went down heavy in the rain back in the 80s.

Lane splitting. I can't believe there are people that actually do it. Just remember not everyone you see on a motorcycle knows how to ride, and not everyone you see on a motorcycle will be on one the next year.

I'm glad I checked in on the blog, If I saw the title "Tomato on a Stick" again I would have been disappointed. Now, get the guys to get off their asses - you too, and get a damn OutOfTheGame podcast out.

Andrew said...

@ Monkey,

Blocking the bike is dangerous to others. Lane splitting is dangerous to self. There is a massive difference.

batgrl said...

I used to get really angry about the lanesharing (I actually find that I like calling it that) - and then I realized I wasn't as angry as I was scared that I was going to end up accidentally killing someone I didn't see coming up quickly on my blind side. (Yet another reason I'm getting rid of my 14 yr old SUV.) And you're right, most bikers know what they're doing - and frankly I want them to pass and get on ahead of me, so I can see them! I'm always really thankful for the ones I see that obviously are skillful and not just showing off with the zipping around. But I really, really wish it was illegal to laneshare while merging onto the highway - maybe it is and I'm not aware of it. But merging is hard enough in CA - trying to merge AND not crash into the cycle next to me was incredibly stressful.

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