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Is Lane Splitting Safe in Washington?

May 11, 2024

When traffic slows to a crawl in Washington, motorcyclists may see a tempting path head for bypassing congestion by riding between lanes of traffic. The slim, two-wheeled design of a motorcycle makes this practice—known as lane splitting—possible on Washington roadways, but is it legal?

Currently, lane-splitting is only legal in California, but legislation introduced in Washington in 2019 attempted to legalize lane-splitting. The bill didn’t pass, but some Washington motorcyclists engage in lane-splitting, despite the bill’s failure. Note that if your injury resulted from a lane-splitting accident, contact our motorcycle accident lawyer in Seattle.

seattle motorcycle accident lawyer

What Is Lane Splitting?

Lane-splitting on a motorcycle is the practice of riding between lanes of traffic in the narrow space between vehicles. It’s also sometimes called “white lining” since riders follow the white lines that divide traffic lanes. Some motorcyclists call this practice “lane filtering” when they use it to “filter” through traffic to the head of a line of stalled or slow-moving traffic. Lane-splitting is only legal in California but some states don’t have explicit laws against lane-splitting, leaving it up to the decision of local law enforcement. In Washington, the law does specifically address lane splitting for motorcyclists.

Washington’s Lane-Splitting Law

In 2019, Washington legislators introduced a bill to legalize lane-splitting using the same guidelines outlining California’s lane-splitting law. The legislation failed to pass. Later, a reformed version of the 2019 bill also failed to pass. The reformed bill would have allowed lane-splitting only in the far left of the left lane, and only during slowed or stalled traffic with the motorcyclist riding no more than 10 miles per hour over the speed of moving traffic. Because both the original and reformed bills did not receive enough votes to pass, Washington’s RCW 46.61.608 remains in effect, prohibiting all lane splitting. The law states the following:

“The operator of a motorcycle shall not overtake and pass in the same lane occupied by the vehicle being overtaken. However, this subsection shall not apply when the operator of a motorcycle overtakes and passes a pedestrian or bicyclist while maintaining a safe passing distance of at least three feet…No person shall operate a motorcycle between lanes of traffic or between adjacent lines or rows of vehicles.”

Is Lane Splitting on a Motorcycle Dangerous?

Drivers typically feel that lane-splitting is a dangerous practice. It’s disconcerting for drivers to suddenly encounter a motorcyclist passing them on the lines between lanes in states where this isn’t common—all states except California. However, motorcyclists have a strong argument that lane splitting improves a motorcyclist’s safety in high-traffic situations by allowing them to move beyond the congested area rather than keeping them trapped between two slow-moving vehicles with a greater risk of a collision. Motorcyclists in slow-moving traffic also argue that remaining between cars in congested traffic causes them to breathe exhaust fumes. 

A 2015 Berkeley study showed that lane-splitting riders were less likely to suffer from head and torso injuries and have a reduced risk of fatality.

What If I’m in a Motorcycle Accident While Lane Splitting?

Putting aside the studies showing a reduced risk of injuries and death for lane-splitters, lane-splitting motorcyclists bear liability for damages in a motorcycle accident in Washington because state traffic laws prohibit the practice. Under Washington’s comparison negligence laws, the insurance company of the party at fault for an accident must pay out on a claim for an accident victim’s damages like property damage, medical expenses, and lost wages.

The state’s pure comparison negligence laws also allow injury victims to make claims for damages even if they are partly at fault. If a lane-splitting motorcyclist was 95% at fault for a car accident in Seattle they may only recover five percent of their damages.

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