Motorcycles are far more likely to be involved in accidents — and their drivers and passengers more likely to be killed in crashes — than other vehicles. Much of it is simple physics: Flesh and bone simply doesn’t withstand a high-speed impact as well as cars and trucks. So conventional wisdom is to enforce rules of the road and make sure motorcycles can be seen (and treated courteously) by other drivers. That means granting motorcycles the same ground as one might a much larger vehicle.
But what if motorcyclists were treated more than equal? What if they were given the authority to drive between cars — a situation known as lane-splitting? Or, to put it another way: Just imagine you are a driver slogging to or from work in your car on a multi-lane road, moving at a snail’s pace with all the other cars, but instead of being stuck in traffic with you, a motorcyclist drives down the lane line, happily passing you and every other car and truck ambling along. How would you react to that? And most important, would it be safe?
That last question is easily the most pressing raised by legislation heard recently by the House Environment and Transportation Committee. Under the measure sponsored by Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Harford County Republican, motorcyclists in Maryland would be allowed to pass other vehicles in this manner under certain conditions. Exactly what conditions would be determined by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration and the State Highway Administration.
A lot of Marylanders are likely to find that notion outlandish. But it’s not quite as off-the-wall as some might think. In 2016, California became the first state in the nation to formally legalize lane-splitting with the California Highway Patrol issuing guidelines and safety tips. It’s too early to tell exactly what impact the policy has had on motorcycle safety, but so far, it does not appear to have had a major negative effect. And since the primary goal of the law was to encourage the use of motorcycles — to reduce congestion and pollution in a jurisdiction that, like Maryland, acknowledges climate change is real — it might even be gauged a success.
But there are plenty of reasons for the General Assembly to keep Delegate Szeliga’s bill on the showroom floor. California has far more motorcycles on the road far more days of the year, and so illegal lane-splitting was probably already happening on a much larger scale than it does here. And because the state has more motorcyclists than any other, drivers were already more accustomed generally to dealing with two-wheelers in a variety of circumstances and traffic conditions.
Even so, California has made a major public safety push, warning motorcyclists that lane-splitting potentially puts them in danger. The California Highway Patrol even began handing out green fluorescent vests to cyclists to help improve their visibility. The agency has warned drivers to check mirrors and blind spots, for example, and to recognize that lane splitting poses new challenges, and for motorcyclists to be cautious, and on and on.
In other words, California knows what it did was risky. A total of 5,172 motorcyclists across the United States lost their lives in crashes in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System. The total has been rising every year since 2014 when it was 4,594. Most of the deaths are the result of multiple-vehicle crashes. Maryland had 76 motorcycle fatalities in 2017, the same as the year before. But they represented about 15 percent of all crash fatalities, which is slightly higher than the national average.
All of which suggests that Maryland would be better off taking a wait-and-see approach to lane-splitting. It would be one thing if public sentiment was strong to give motorcyclists priority. But if it is, we haven’t detected it. Instead, there’s a real danger that lane-splitting would breed resentment and hostility. And while the practice is more common in Europe and Asia, it’s not necessarily safe. Europe’s accident rate may be lower than in the U.S., but it is actually higher in many Asian countries. California’s effort is worth watching, but the potential for creating more traffic conflicts — and more fatalities — is too great to move forward without greater understanding of the consequences.