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Is Lane Splitting Legal In California?

Is lane splitting legal in CA? The short answer is yes, but it's important to fully understand how the maneuver is regarded in California.

evident Editorial Team
August 30, 2023
California, pacific coast highway

Motorcycles offer a unique sense of freedom on the open road, but they also introduce distinctive challenges that both riders and other motorists must reckon with. Among the array of maneuvers motorcyclists employ, few spark as much debate as "lane splitting.” 

A question that often arises is, "Is lane splitting legal in CA?" The short answer is yes, lane splitting is legal in California, but there are still important nuances to know about the law and when lane splitting is legal in CA. 

In this article, we'll cover:

  • What lane splitting is
  • Whether lane splitting is legal in CA
  • Relevant arguments regarding the safety debate surrounding lane splitting
  • And everything else you need to know about lane splitting in California

Whether you're an experienced motorcyclist, a vigilant driver sharing the road, or just curious about the legality of lane splitting in California, this article should leave you with a better understanding of the state of the law in the Golden State.

Key Takeaways

What is Lane Splitting?

Lane splitting, sometimes also called white-lining or stripe-riding, represents a driving technique commonly used by motorcyclists. Lane splitting involves maneuvering between two lanes of traffic or weaving between the adjoining lines or rows of vehicles moving in the same direction. 

Per the California Vehicle Code, lane splitting is defined as: "driving a motorcycle [. . . ] that has two wheels in contact with the ground, between rows of stopped or moving vehicles in the same lane, including on both divided and undivided streets, roads, or highways."

Lane splitting is a way for motorcyclists to advance through congested road scenarios, and advocates note that it can reduce the risk of rear-end collisions.

What is lane filtering, and how is it different?

A related practice to lane splitting is lane filtering. Lane filtering specifically involves navigating through stopped traffic, often around stoplights or when vehicles have come to a complete halt. 

While people sometimes use the terms interchangeably, they are different maneuvers, and the difference rests chiefly on the flow of traffic. (Lane splitting often refers to situations where traffic is flowing, even if at a reduced speed, whereas lane filtering often refers to situations where traffic is stopped, such as at a stop light). 

Note that lane splitting and lane sharing are also different from lane sharing, which typically refers to two motorcycles riding side by side in the same lane.

Controversy surrounding lane splitting

Lane splitting can be a somewhat controversial topic. Some drivers believe it is a risky maneuver that can increase the chances of traffic and road accidents. 

Meanwhile, motorcyclists often emphasize its potential to enhance motorcyclist safety, particularly by curtailing exposure to rear-end collisions amid heavy traffic. 

The controversy is also fed by uncertainty regarding lane splitting’s legality, as lane splitting laws vary by state, and most states do not permit the practice.

Is Lane Splitting Legal in California?

So, can you split lanes in California? The short answer is yes – unlike in most states, lane splitting is legal in California. 

California Assembly Bill 51 was signed in 2016 and paved the way to create guidelines for lane splitting and clarify that it is, in fact, legal in the state.

The California Highway Patrol offers lane splitting safety tips, including:

  • Risks increase as the speed differential (between the motorcyclist and other vehicles) increases
  • Risks increase as the overall speed of the flow of traffic increases
  • The overall context of road conditions should be considered, including the width of lanes, weather, and the size of surrounding vehicles)
  • It is generally safer to split the far left lanes of traffic as opposed to other lanes

The CHP also notes that passing on the shoulder is still illegal, and doing so is not considered lane splitting.

It is worth keeping in mind that California is an outlier – no other state has legalized lane splitting. But not only is lane splitting legal in California, it is illegal for other motor vehicles to intentionally block or impede a motorcyclist in a way that could harm the rider. Likewise, opening a car door to impede a motorcyclist is also illegal. 

Is Lane Splitting Dangerous?

Whether lane splitting is safe or dangerous tends to draw mixed responses, mainly because the answer can depend on numerous factors. For instance, whether lane splitting is dangerous depends on factors including the motorcyclist’s skill, the awareness of surrounding drivers, and the traffic conditions at the time. 

Research conducted by U.C. Berkeley found that lane splitting can be relatively safe when done responsibly. That said, the risks involved increase significantly when motorcyclists split lanes at high speeds or with a larger speed differential relative to surrounding traffic. Motorcyclists should avoid lane splitting when these or other dangerous road conditions are present.

motorcycle, accident

Motorcycle riders also have to contend with drivers who do not expect a motorcycle to pass them in either slowed or stopped traffic. Many car drivers, particularly in other states, are unaware of the practice and may inadvertently block or impede motorcyclists. If they do not see a motorcycle lane splitting, they may be taken by surprise or in a poor position to accommodate the maneuver.

Additionally, the risk of a collision is increased by the limited space in which motorcyclists navigate while they split lanes, reducing the margin for error and making it harder to avoid sudden obstacles or react to unexpected movements from surrounding traffic. 

Therefore, although lane splitting can decrease the risk to motorcyclists of getting rear-ended in traffic jams, it can also introduce new dangers that riders need to be prepared to handle. The safety of the practice largely depends on careful and attentive execution by the motorcyclist, combined with awareness and understanding from other drivers. 

FAQs About Lane Splitting in California

Why is lane splitting only legal in California?

As noted, lane splitting is a somewhat controversial practice. And though some studies show that it can improve traffic safety, many people still view it as a risky or dangerous maneuver. 

Note that three other states – Arizona, Montana, and Utah – have made lane filtering legal. Additionally, state laws can change, and numerous states have considered laws that would legalize lane splitting. (Colorado, for instance, is considering a law that authorize research into viability of allowing lane splitting in the state).

But for the time being, whether because of safety concerns or an inability to get new legislation across the finish line, California is the only state that permits lane splitting. 

At what speed is lane splitting legal in California?

There is no California lane splitting speed limit, per se. The California Highway Patrol issues safety tips, and a previous CHP lane splitting brochure advised that motorcyclists should not exceed the flow of traffic by more than 10 miles per hour and that riders should not split lanes if traffic is moving 30 miles per hour or faster. (But note that these lane splitting safety guidelines do not necessarily represent the CHP's current guidance, which can be found here).

That said, overall road conditions are relevant, and it is possible that splitting lanes could be unsafe even within these parameters (if there is poor weather or challenging road conditions for another reason, for instance). 

Can you lane split at a stop light in California?

traffic light, red, stop

Yes, depending on the circumstances, you are allowed to lane split at a stop light in California. 

Note that this maneuver, particularly if traffic is stopped at a red light, is often referred to as lane filtering as opposed to lane splitting. (Indeed, lane filtering is sometimes treated differently under the law, including in three states which legalize lane filtering but not lane splitting). 

But in CA, the short answer is yes, you can lane split at a stop light in California. 

The Final Word on Lane Splitting in California

So, is lane splitting legal in CA? Yes, California is the one state that has legalized lane splitting. 

And while the maneuver is somewhat controversial in some circles, lane splitting can decrease traffic congestion as well as the risk of rear-end collisions to motorcycles when done safely. 

If you have been in an accident or have other specific questions about traffic laws in California, consider speaking with a motorcycle accident lawyer

And remember, always ride responsibly, obey traffic laws, and consider the well-being of all vehicles on the road.