Motorcycle Accidents: Lane Splitting

If an accident occurs when a motorcycle is lane splitting, who is at fault?

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Lane splitting occurs when a motorcycle (or bike) drives between two lanes of stopped or slowly moving cars, usually in traffic jams. If an accident occurs while a motorcycle is lane splitting, whether the motorcycle or car is at fault depends on whether lane splitting is permissible in that state, the views of the police officer and judge on lane splitting, and the actions of both the motorist and motorcyclist prior to the accident.

Is Lane Splitting Legal?

While most states do not recognize lane splitting as a legal maneuver, they also do not specifically prohibit it. However, police and the courts often interpret lane splitting as unlawful. One state, California, does specifically permit lane splitting, but only if it is done in a "safe and prudent" manner. Of course, the definition of "safe and prudent" is very much up to interpretation by police officers and judges.

Accidents While Lane Splitting: Who is Liable?

Lane splitting is prime fodder for accidents due to the close proximity of the cars to the motorcycle, the reduced space to maneuver, and the fact that the cars don't anticipate that a vehicle will be passing them in slowed or stopped traffic.

If an accident happens while a motorcycle is lane splitting, there's a good chance that fault for the accident will be attributed to the motorcycle rider. If the insurance adjuster or court finds that the motorcyclist's carelessness was a substantial cause of the accident, the rider is out of luck when it comes to recovering damages. (For information on filing insurance claims, see Nolo's Dealing With Insurance Companies area.)

However, if the motorcycle rider can show that the other driver (presumably of a car or truck) contributed to the accident, the rider may be partially or fully compensated for her injuries and property damage. This may occur if the car that hit them was changing lanes or weaving, or if the driver was talking on the phone or otherwise not paying attention. (To learn more about assigning liability in accidents, read Nolo's article Proving Fault in Personal Injury Accidents: General Rules.)

The following factors may help prove this claim:

  • The motorcyclist was riding carefully -- not speeding or weaving in and out of lanes or between cars.
  • The motorcyclist is an experienced rider.
  • The motorcyclist has completed a motorcycle riding or safety course.
  • The other driver did something even more dangerous than lane splitting -- for example, making an abrupt lane change without signaling, or drifting from one lane into another.

If possible, support your version of the accident with a police report and witness statements. (To learn more about getting evidence to support your case, read Nolo's articles Take Notes After an Accident or Injury and Personal Injury Accidents: Preserve Evidence.)

Lane Splitting Safety

If you are going to lane split, be sure it's not prohibited in your state and then make sure you do it in a safe manner. This is your best defense against accidents. And if you do get in an accident, evidence of your safe riding behavior will make it more likely that your insurance carrier, or a judge, will find that you were not at fault for the accident.

To increase your safety while lane splitting, do the following:

  • Always be alert and aware of the cars around you.
  • Ride with your headlights on and wear reflective clothing.
  • Enter the area where you plan to lane split cautiously -- wait until both lanes of cars have slowed to the same speed. If one lane is moving faster, cars are more likely to suddenly switch lanes -- and may hit you in the process.
  • Be extra cautious when traveling in a car's blind spot.
  • Drive at a speed slightly faster than the flow of traffic. Don't zoom by stopped or slowly moving cars.
  • Look for signs that a car may be changing lanes, such as the driver looking into the rearview or sideview mirrors.
  • Honk if the cars get too close together. Wait until the distance is safe to pass between them.
  • When traffic speeds up to about 30 mph, get back into the lane.

To learn more about motorcycle, bike, and car accidents, and how to recover for injuries and property damage resulting from these accidents, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).

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