Should Lane Splitting Be Legal in Washington?

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Motorcycles offer unparalleled freedom on the road that you cannot get from other types of motor vehicles, such as cars or trucks. This freedom is one of the major appeals of operating a motorcycle. It can also, however, lead to some legally questionable driving practices.

One common issue concerning motorcycles in Washington State is the practice of “lane splitting.” Strictly speaking, lane splitting is illegal in Washington. A motorcyclist injured in an accident may be found partially or primarily responsible if they were engaged in lane splitting when a collision occurred. A Seattle attorney specializing in motorcycle accident legal services can advise you further on the law in this area.

What Is “Lane Splitting”?

Lane splitting applies to a motorcycle traveling on a public road with two or more marked lanes. In simple terms, “splitting” a lane means the motorcycle travels between the two lanes. This is sometimes called “white lining,” as lane splitting often means the motorcyclist is on the white line separating the two lanes. You may also hear the term “lane filtering” applied to specific situations. Technically, lane filtering is when a motorcycle operator weaves between lanes of traffic.

Why Does Lane Splitting Occur?

Lane splitting is a controversial practice among motorcyclists. Even many seasoned riders consider it reckless and dangerous. However, proponents argue that it promotes safer motorcycle operations.

Advocates argue that lane splitting helps motorcyclists navigate traffic congestion safely when practiced safely. Specifically, it helps avoid a situation where a motorcyclist may be rear-ended by a tailgating motorist behind them. Additionally, many motorcycle engines simply cannot handle the constant stopping-and-going you often see during heavily congested traffic. The argument goes that allowing a motorcycle to flow more freely via lane splitting makes the engine less likely to break down while still on the road.

Lane Splitting and the Law in Washington State

Despite the benefits suggested by lane-splitting advocates, the practice is currently only legal in a single state, California. The majority of states, including Washington, expressly forbid lane splitting. (A few permit lane filtering.) RCW 46.61.608 states, “No person shall operate a motorcycle between lanes of traffic or adjacent lines or rows of vehicles.”

In 2016, the Washington State Senate considered SB 5254. This bill would have created a three-year pilot program to allow lane-splitting under conditions similar to California’s. For example, a motorcyclist could overtake a vehicle in the same lane or between lanes of traffic so long as it was traveling at 25 miles per hour and not more than 10 miles per hour faster than the flow of traffic.

While this bill did not pass, the state legislature adopted a more limited reform in 2019 that allows a motorcycle to pass two or more lanes of slow or stalled traffic by making a far-left lane pass.

Lane Splitting and Comparative Negligence in Washington State

In any accident involving a motorcycle and a larger motor vehicle, the motorcycle operator or passenger is far more likely to suffer a fatal or serious injury than people riding in a car or truck. This comes down to the almost complete lack of protection afforded the motorcyclist. Even if they are wearing a helmet and safety pads, there is nothing to protect them from the open road if they are thrown off their bike.

So, it is not uncommon for motorcycle accident victims–or their families, if the injuries proved fatal–to file a personal injury lawsuit against the negligent motorist who caused the accident. Of course, your first step should always be to contact motorcycle accident lawyers serving Seattle, Bellevue, Federal Way, and Renton. One of the first questions an attorney is likely to ask is whether or not the victim was engaged in lane splitting when or just before the accident occurred.

This is a critical question because of Washington’s comparative negligence laws. In any personal injury case, the finder of fact–a jury or a judge–must decide who was legally at fault for the underlying accident. The defendant often tries to shift the blame to the plaintiff or a third party. It is then up to the finder of fact to sort through the evidence and apportion fault accordingly.

So, concerning a motorcycle accident, if the defense can prove the plaintiff engaged in lane splitting, that can mitigate some–or potentially all–of the plaintiff’s legal responsibility for the accident. The reverse also holds. Suppose the plaintiff was a motorist who claims they were injured due to a reckless motorcyclist who engaged in illegal lane splitting. That may be sufficient proof to establish the motorcyclist’s responsibility in that case.

That said, just because there was lane splitting does not automatically make the motorcyclist 100 percent responsible. The other driver may still have engaged in reckless or negligent behaviors contributing to the accident. And comparative negligence in Washington is not an “all or nothing” deal. Quite the contrary. Washington is among the few states following a “pure” comparative fault rule. There is no threshold the plaintiff must fall below to collect financial compensation from a negligent defendant. Theoretically, a plaintiff could be 99 percent at fault for a motorcycle accident, and the defendant still has to pay for the remaining 1 percent of damages.

Contact a Seattle Motorcycle Accident Lawyer Today

Motorcyclists often get a bum rap for being reckless and irresponsible. Yet statistically speaking, more accidents are caused by people driving cars and trucks than motorcycles. So if you, or someone that you care about, has been seriously injured while riding their motorcycle, it is best to seek out competent legal advice as soon as possible. The Washington motorcycle accident attorneys at Premier Law Group are here to help. Call us today at (206) 285-1743 to schedule a free consultation.