Is Motorcycle Lane Splitting Safe? An Analysis

You’ve probably heard figures bandied about that lane filtering is four, six or 10 times safer than sitting in stationary traffic in your lane. But how true is that? Is it safer to filter while on a motorcycle or is it just a good way to get through traffic faster? We’ve taken a look at research and studies going back as far as 1981 and as early as last year to see whether or not filtering will make your riding experience safer or more dangerous.

A landmark document in motorcycle safety which we will first look at is the Hurt Report which was begun 1976 and published in 1981. It was and still is regarded as one of the most comprehensive and important motorcycle safety studies of last century. It’s a broad ranging document that came to various conclusions, such that two-thirds of motorcycle-car crashes occurred when the car driver failed to see and give way to the approaching motorcycle at an intersection and that helmets significantly reduce the risk of brain injury and death but with no increased risk of crash involvement or neck injury.

It did not however look at the effects of lane splitting and any claims that it did are people’s interpretation of the data provided. In fact, a co-author of the Hurt report, Dave Thom was quoted as saying that “Lane splitting is theoretically advantageous but there’s no way to statistically disprove it’s safer because there’s been no study from which to pull the information from”.

Is Motorcycle Lane Splitting Dangerous?

Where people have used the Hurt report to claim lane splitting is safe is this:

“Moderate or heavy traffic was the situation at 59.2% of the accidents.”

However, that does not describe what occurred in enough detail to draw any inferences from. Did the motorcycle run into the car? Was it from behind or at the side? Was the rider actually lane splitting at the time of the accident? The report does not say. In fact, the Hurt report does not even mention the term lane splitting once.

The largest report to follow the Hurt report was a European study titled Motorcycle Accidents In Depth Study, or MAIDS. First published in 2009, the report looked at 921 accidents from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. It is in the MAIDS report that you will often hear the quote that lane-splitting is six (or some other similar number) times more safer than not splitting.

Again however, there is no specific analysis of lane splitting or filtering. In fact, the word filtering only occurs a handful of times in two data tables. That data shows the following frequency and percentage of crashes involving a car hitting a rider from behind when the rider is stopped, and lane filtering:

Frequency Percent
Stopped in traffic, speed is zero 26 2.8
Filtering 4 0.4

Therefore as a mathematical result, one could say that as 26 divided by four equals 6.5, filtering must be six and a half times safer than not doing so. From a statistical point of view however, it’s a very long bow to draw. The other issue is that out of the five countries included in the MAIDS report, one doesn’t allow filtering and yet there was no mention of whether that had any impact on the results. For all we know, those 26 “Stopped in traffic, speed is zero” accidents could have occurred in the four countries where splitting was legal and the four filtering accidents could have occurred in the one where it isn’t. The details just aren’t there.

Is Motorcycle Lane Splitting Dangerous?

So has there actually ever been a study that specifically looks at lane filtering?

Thankfully, yes. A preliminary report conducted by the University of California, Berkeley and the California Highway Patrol looked at 8,000 motorcycle accidents occurring between June 2012 and August 2013 and what the effect of lane splitting was on riders. The report found the following (note, LSM stands for Lane Splitting Motorcyclist):

  • LSM were less likely to be rear-ended by another vehicle (2.7%) than were other motorcyclists (4.6%).
  • Patterns of injury were significantly different comparing LSM and other motorcyclists. LSM were notably less likely to suffer head injury (9.1% vs 16.5%), torso injury (18.6% vs 27.3%), or fatal injury (1.4% vs 3.1%) than other motorcyclists.
  • The occurrence of neck injury and arm/leg injury did not differ meaningfully by lane-splitting status.

The other interesting data is that motorcyclists who lane-split seem to be more safety conscious as indicated by the following findings:

  • LSM were more likely to be wearing a full-face helmet than other motorcyclists (79% and 64%, respectively) and less likely to be wearing a novelty helmet (1.9% and 4.1%, respectively).
  • Motorcyclists who were not lane-splitting were more likely to wearing a 1/2- or 3/4-helmet (23%) than LSM (13%).
  • The prevalence of alcohol use was lower among LSM (1.3%) than it was among other motorcyclists (3.3%).
  • The proportion of motorcyclists that were unlicensed was moderately lower among LSM (18%) than among other motorcyclists (22%).

Is Motorcycle Lane Splitting Dangerous?

There is one other statistic that stands out, however:

  • LSM, on the other hand, were much more likely to have rear-ended another vehicle (36.4%) than were other motorcyclists (14.9%) due to lane splitting.

Which unfortunately almost puts us back to square one. You’re less likely to be hit by a car from behind if you don’t lane split, but more likely to run into a car from behind yourself if you do lane split.

But for a moment, let’s forget about the reports and apply the common sense test. What is likely to be worse? Being hit from behind by a two ton car while you’re sitting stationary, or running into the back of a car on a motorcycle at low filtering speeds? The answer should be pretty clear that the latter is the preferable type of accident.

And that’s supported by the UC Berkeley report, which showed that head and torso injuries were far worse for riders that didn’t split and that those riders who didn’t split were nearly three times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident.

As it stands, the research tells the following story:

  • Splitting is not less safe than not splitting.
  • It is highly likely, given research conducted that it is safer to lane split as opposed to not lane split.

Of course, it’s up to the individual rider to be comfortable with the idea of lane splitting. But here, we’re strong advocates of filtering from a safety perspective. Doing it correctly and at sensible speeds should mean there’s no reason to run into another car, and doing so prevents the possibility of being cleaned up from behind.

Is Motorcycle Lane Splitting Dangerous?

Where You’ll be Injured In A Motorcycle Accident

In an ideal world all motorcyclists would cover themselves from head to toe in the best protective gear money can buy.  But things aren’t ideal.  Not everyone can afford top the range safety equipment.  Sometimes, the heat conspires against riders – who really likes being clad head to toe in thick cow leather when the temperature is over 90 degrees?  And is it really necessary to wear all the gear for a quick five minute ride down to the shops?

This article isn’t designed to beat you over the head telling you to wear ATGATT (All The Gear All The Time).  You’ve chosen to ride a motorcycle (a risky mode of transport), you can choose your risk level when it comes to protecting your body.  But perhaps after reading through some of the statistics and findings of this article, you’ll have a change of heart and realise that it is worth your while putting one some proper motorcycle pants.

Also, this article won’t focus too heavily on head injuries from not wearing a helmet.  Firstly because if you’re reading an article on motorcycle safety, I’d dare say you wear a helmet.  And secondly, if you don’t wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle, there’s really nothing that hasn’t already been said to change your mind.  Unhelmeted riders are 40% more likely to die from a head injury than someone wearing a helmet and if that’s a statistic you’d like to be a part of, more power to you.

What this article will look at is the risks to other parts of your body from not being fully geared up.  What are the chances that you’ll injure your shins, forearm or elbow?  What possible injuries are likely to your feet if you decide not to wear proper motorcycle shoes?  We’ve based this article on a number of sources.  One is from the Motorcycle Council of NSW which in turn based its findings on multiple sources since 1981.  The second source is a journal article by the George Institute for Global Health, which published its findings in 2011, making it one of the more recent studies conducted. We’ve also collated data and read published journals plus information from the US Centre for Disease Control.

Keep in mind that with our findings, they are collated from presentations to hospitals or as reported by paramedics.  So if you have an accident where you get cuts or bruises and you just go to a GP, that statistic will not be captured here.  Nor obviously would it be captures if you have a crash and don’t hurt yourself at all.  So keep that in mind when reading below.

We’ve also made an infographic to capture the most important factors in an easy to read format which you can look at below.

Where You'll be Injured in a Motorcycle Accident Infographic

So let’s take a look at the various parts of your body and see what gets hurts the most.

Arms

Your arms (excluding your hands) are the second most likely part of your body to be injured in a crash.  Thankfully, the majority of arm related injuries are soft tissue injuries which can be greatly reduced or eliminated by wearing a proper fitting jacket.

The most likely place to get an injury on your arm is the forearm and many times, the soft tissue damage will occur where your arm is exposed between your glove and the cuff of your jacket.  Hence, a gauntlet style glove that overlaps the jacket sleeve offers the greatest protection.

Fractures do occur too, and though armor in the elbow and forearm will reduce this, it’s not a failsafe.  Good armor in the elbow is critical – you really want CE2 rated armor here as a chipped elbow is actually a far worse injury than a fracture. A chipped elbow will result in the elbow hurting when moved and the elbow may click or lock.

 

For those that did not wear any sort of protection, 91.9% sustained an injury to their arms (the highest injury being abrasions and cuts, followed by bruising, sprains and then fractures).  Of those that did wear a jacket, 78.3% had an injury, reducing to 69.7% if that jacket was armored, with brusing and some abrasion being the most likely result.  Most interestingly though is that those that wore an armored jack were almost half as likely to receive a fracture as those that wore no protective clothing on their arms. That’s a huge improvement in protection.

Back and Spine

A spinal injury is probably one of the most feared by any person, motorcyclist or not.  Medical science still cannot do much to help with spinal injuries compared to a broken arm or leg.  Paralysis is almost always permanent.  Thankfully, back injuries are amongst the rarest of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.

Unfortunately, there’ s not much you can do to prevent back injuries. Research suggests that most motorcycle-crash back injuries are caused by bending and torsional forces, not direct impacts to the spine (EU 2003). Foam inserts do nothing.  In fact, one study showed that those with foam inserts in their jackets had a higher injury rate than those without any padding.

 

Those with a proper back protector did fair slightly better, reducing the injury rate to only 8%.  But given back protectors are there to soften direct impacts, and not torsional forces, there’s little one can do to truly protect the spine at current levels of protective technology.