A week or two ago I had the pleasure of “testing” some new Dunlop tires up north of the L.A. sprawl – all up through recently rained-upon green backroads and citrus farms reeking of orange blossoms, around Fillmore and Santa Paula, looping around Lake Cachuma (filling back up with water!) and Ojai, back down along the ocean and through the Malibu canyons – all on a brand new KTM Super Duke GT, all under blue skies with temperatures hovering in crispy low 60s. Nearly as good a day on a motorcycle as you can have, really. When you’re working, anyway.
And when it was over at about 5 pm, it was time to continue southward on the KTM, back to my digs in Santa Ana, a distance of 69.2 miles says Google. That may sound like an easy hour’s cruise, but if you’ve ever driven in L.A. or any big metropolitan area, you know better. Just a couple of weeks ago, L.A. won the title once again, Worst Traffic in America. My route would take me directly through the belly of the beast. (Actually, I-5 would be the belly, which is constantly undergoing surgery. Don’t even think about that.) We’ll do the 101 South to the 405, a slight gastric bypass.
If I was having to make the drive back down through the Valley, over Sepulveda Pass, down past the Getty and through the Westside, past LAX, through South Bay, Carson, Long Beach, yada yada yada, in a car, I probably would’ve either just taken my own life or maybe gone to a movie marathon in some metroplex till midnight. On the KTM, I really wasn’t minding the prospect… actually even looking forward to it after a day falling in love with the KTM.
Surprisingly, southbound traffic on 101 didn’t begin to back up until we were five miles out of Westlake Village! When it did, I fell in line astern as Rennie Scaysbrook from Cycle News moved into the space between the two left lanes of cars, on his BMW S1000XR, and began penetrating the cars, gently at first, slowly…
In some stretches the lanes are wider than others, or maybe there’s just less shoulder to the left which narrows the gap, and Rennie needs to take it a little easy due to his BMW’s wide mirrors and bags. But he’s a professional and soon achieves a reasonably quick pace we’ll be able to run for the 1.5 hours or so this should take. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance; as the cars jostle, you might have to make a juke left or a quick move to the right to avoid clipping somebody’s mirror with your handlebar end, but in decades of lane-splitting, the only actual close call I’ve ever had was when another motorcyclist on a cruiser suddenly appeared ahead of me from in front of a truck as I was lickety-splitting along about 25 mph. I did the best stoppie of my life on a Ducati Monster, then carried on behind him with an elevated heart rate for quite some time. (After that, I always check my mirror for other bikes before I pull into the gap!)
When the cars speed up – speed being relative – we speed up, when they slow down, we slow down, but we never have to stop like they do. Yo, we’re in America, where it’s all about getting ahead, and the only time I ever feel like I’m doing it is when I’m lane-splitting. I finally get to be a one-percenter, and it’s tremendously liberating. Money buys freedom. I don’t even have to experience liberal guilt, because everybody here understands I’m getting ahead without pushing anyone behind. One less car on the road benefits all of us. (This happened to be the night our new President enacted tougher deportation laws; when traffic was flowing freely, it was doing so about 10 mph closer to the 65 mph limit than the night before.) The best is when there are double double-yellow lines that separate the carpool lane from the other four or five lanes, like in the lead photo. Don’t know why they don’t just designate the two or three feet between the double yellows the Motorcycle Lane, because that’s what it is. Yes, I’ve done it for miles right behind a motorcycle officer.
Lane-splitting isn’t just spiritually rewarding, heck man, it can even be fun. Riding along behind Rennie that night felt a lot like riding single-track on big dirt bikes: Instead of dodging rocks and ruts and roots, we’re dodging mirrors and Botts dots and cars that creep over a little when the driver’s adjusting the stereo or sending a text; 99% of drivers are really good, though (which still leaves about 80,000 cars to be leery of most trips), and lots of them will move over if they see you coming. Motorcycle people trapped in a car move way over and sigh deeply. In the upscale areas (not I-5), just about everybody in the left lanes is a responsible sort with a job, in a decent vehicle they don’t want to see scratched; the rogues are easy to spot. When the trail (the gap between cars) narrows or if somebody throws out a Big Gulp, you slow down and dodge it. When it opens up, you gas it! Fun on motorcycles as the sun sets among all the pretty cars, lights and billboards! It’s like strolling through Manhattan while comfortably seated.
Dangerous? Well, the statistics say you’re something like 36 times more likely to be killed on a bike than in a car, but they also say lane-splitting is safer than not lane-splitting, since you’ve mostly eliminated your chances of being rear-ended. Again, anytime the trail gets really tight, you’re not doing much more than jogging speed (not that I would jog). A “crash” at that point would be more embarrassing than dangerous. I’ve seen one unfold:
I pulled aside one time (on the 5 of course) to let a guy in a Nazi helmet past on his freedom-piped cruiser. Half a mile along and impressing me with his skillz, his right ape-hanger smashed into a shiny new F-150 mirror, which clamped on his front brake and sent him directly onto the pavement at maybe 10 mph (another reason not to have a front brake!). He jumped up unharmed, but may not have remained that way, as the pickup driver was a burly, irate sort who pulled in front of the downed Harley and jumped out to discuss the matter, nicely blocking the two left lanes of I-5 North at rush hour. Nice work, fella! Funny how you can guess a guy wearing a Nazi replica helmet might be the sort to make bad decisions without even knowing him. I can be judgmental that way, sorry.
All this is to say I can’t imagine a world without lane-splitting; I and my MO colleagues simply would not be able to function, I can’t imagine clutching along in a line of cars while constantly monitoring that big SUV grille in your mirrors. It’s a nightmare to contemplate. Why not take the bus at that point?
What got me thinking about the whole thing was reading the comments in the Oregon and Utah newspaper articles we posted recently, where they’re trying to make lane-sharing legal. (Sharing sounds nicer doesn’t it? Or does it smack of socialism?) What if I need to open my door on the freeway and a motorcycle runs into it?
It’s funny how people can be so hotly opposed to a thing of which they have so little knowledge, a thing that’s as commonplace in the rest of the world as… (I kind of want to say free health care, but I know better)… it’s as commonplace in the rest of the world as people keeping right except to pass! Funny but sad…
California does have an excellent Mediterranean climate, but I wonder how much the fact that it’s the only state that allows lane splitting contributes to its being by far the largest motorcycle market in the U.S.? I wonder how many more motorcycles would get sold in other mild-weather states, like Texas, if the freedom-loving pickup drivers stuck in traffic in Dallas or Houston could split lanes? And I wonder why the AMA or the MIC or whoever’s job it is to get more butts on bikes, does nothing to promote it? It’s a simple matter of educating people that lane-sharing gets everybody where they’re going faster, and almost ensures you’ll never have to suffer the inconvenience of finding a motorcycle on your hood when you look up from your Whopper with Cheese. (Though you will need to look in your side mirror before opening your door to throw out the wrapper and beer cans.)
I guess ensuring we’re not oppressed by helmet laws is a higher priority. Maybe we should start some online petition deal here on MO to help our brothers out in the other 49? All I know is I wouldn’t want to / just plain couldn’t live in a world without lane-splitting; I’d probably have to go back to being a car guy. How boring.