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.