If you’ve ever driven around Europe or California, you may have encountered motorcyclists traveling faster than the surrounding traffic by using the space between cars. This is a practice known as “lane-splitting.”

Personally, I’m not a big fan. From the safety of my car, it seems dangerous, and it seems to add an element of randomness to driving, which is never a good thing.

However, many motorcyclists are big on it and have helped spur bills to legalize the practice in 15 of the 49 states that ban the practice. Their reasoning? It’s safer than regular driving. For the record, none of those bills passed, and so California remains the only state in which the practice is legal.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest opponents are AAA clubs and state law enforcement, which argue that lane-splitting is more dangerous.

So, is lane-splitting safer?

Let’s dig into the research and find out.

Most recent articles on the subject point back to an article published by the University of California, Berkeley, which details a study done by the same organization, which was published in 2015.

The study suggests that lane-splitting reduces the number of accidents, injuries, and fatalities for motorcyclists.

Lane-splitters “were markedly less likely to suffer head injury (9% vs 17%), torso injury (19% vs 29%), or fatal injury (1.2% vs 3.0%) than non-lane-splitting motorcyclists . . . Lane-splitting riders were significantly less likely to be rear-ended than non-lane-splitting riders (2.6 percent vs. 4.6 percent) . . .”

At least, that’s the part of the story that you’ll hear if you subscribe to cycleworld.com, which publishes a magazine for motorcyclists.

So, I think we could use some context.

I found the original study, and believe it or not, there’s more to the story.

The magazine misrepresented the rear-ending stat. While drivers that are lane-splitting are significantly less likely to be rear-ended (2.6% vs 4.6%), they’re far more likely than their normal compatriots to be the rear-ender (38% to 16%). Lane-splitters appear to be far more likely to

Lane-splitters wore better safety gear. They were less likely to wear ½ helmets compared to regular riders (9% vs 15%), less likely to wear ¾ helmets (5% vs 9%), less likely to wear novelty helmets (1.8% vs 4.2%), and they wore more full-face helmets (81% to 67%).

I wonder if wearing better helmets will result in less head injuries?

They were also younger. 58% of lane-splitters were 34 or younger compared to just 45% of regular drivers. Likewise, only 6% were 55 or older, compared to 19% for regular drivers.

Why does this matter?

With age comes injuries.

In a study of workplace injuries published in 2016, the authors write “[w]hen compared to younger workers, older workers are at increased risk for fatal injuries and hospitalizations within 1 day of work injury . . . Among older workers age 65 and older,

  • the leading cause of work-related fatal injuries was motor vehicle accidents;
  • the leading cause of hospitalizations within 1 day of work injuries were falls on the same level; and
  • the leading cause of wage replacement claims were injuries resulting from overexertion (e.g., sprains and strains, musculoskeletal disorders).”

Here’s the thing about motorcycle accidents: they combine motor vehicle accidents with falls on the same level. They literally combine two of the leading causes of workplace injuries for older people into one terrifying event!

If you consider the fact that older people made up a higher percentage of the regular riders and also get injured, seriously injured, and killed at a greater rate, you have to wonder if a significant portion of the difference between lane-splitters and regulars is due to that factor alone.

There’s one more big difference that advocates of lane-splitting fail to mention: only 1.2% of lane-splitters were driving under the influence of alcohol, compared to 3.4% of regular drivers. That’s a really significant amount, and, weirdly enough, it kind of mirrors the difference in fatality rates.

It makes you wonder what other factors might be relevant. Does one group generally pay better attention to the road? Does one group have a better driving record? What else could be hiding behind the numbers?

Speaking generally, the numbers contained within this study don’t mean what the supporters of lane-splitting think they mean. There are too many factors that aren’t being controlled for here.

A possible interpretation of the data is that younger, less-drunk riders, with better safety equipment, get injured and die less often. Which isn’t much of a revelation.

Now, I want to give the study’s authors credit. They don’t mean for their numbers to be interpreted this way. Instead, these numbers are included to build up to their final conclusion, which was controlled for all of these factors.

“Lane-splitting appears to be a relatively safe motorcycle riding strategy if done in traffic moving at 50 MPH or less and if motorcyclists do not exceed the speed of other vehicles by more than 15 MPH. A significant number of motorcyclists lane-split in fast-moving traffic or at excessive speed differentials. These riders could lower their risk of injury by restricting the environments in which they lane-split and by reducing their speed differential when they do choose to lane-split.”

Shh! Don’t tell the motorcyclists that! They’re going to hate it.

You know why?

Because the real appeal of lane-splitting isn’t safety. It’s the speed differential. It’s about getting where you’re going faster.

And, there’s nothing wrong with that desire.

But, at some point, we have to look at the hard data, which suggests that doing that is a good way to significantly increase your likelihood of injuring or killing yourself.

That’s exactly what road laws are designed to prevent.

Now, this isn’t conclusive. This is one study, and we need more in order to make sure that we have a clear picture of what’s going on.

But, is it safe to say that line-splitting is safer?

Depends on the circumstances, but evidence suggests that it will be less safe in many of the common conditions in which it is used. And if that’s the case, why would we want it?

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