Rules of the Road

Road Rules: It’s not only motorcycle riders who need to understand the laws and the risks

It is legal in Washington for motorcyclists to ride two abreast in a lane, but all drivers have a responsibility to protect all vulnerable road users.
It is legal in Washington for motorcyclists to ride two abreast in a lane, but all drivers have a responsibility to protect all vulnerable road users.

Question: Is it legal for two motorcycle police officers to ride side by side down a city street?

Answer: Yes, and that is not an exception granted only to police officers. In section 46.61.608 of the Revised Code of Washington it states that “Motorcycles shall not be operated more than two abreast in a single lane.” Officers or not, two motorcycles riding side by side is OK according to our state law.

While we’re on the topic of motorcycles, let’s explore a few other points made in the aforementioned law. Riding a motorcycle presents a lot more risk than driving a car, so it’s important that both motorcycle riders and drivers in cars (especially drivers, as you’ll see later) understand the law.

The first point in this section of the law is really more for drivers than motorcyclists. It entitles motorcycles to the full use of a lane. The law states that “no motor vehicle shall be driven in such a manner as to deprive any motorcycle of the full use of a lane.” Even if the lane is wide. Even if you think you can fit past the motorcycle without hitting it. Whatever “even if” you can think of, drivers are required to give motorcyclists their space.

The obvious exception to this law is two motorcycles riding side by side in a single lane.

The next point is for the motorcyclists and states, “The operator of a motorcycle shall not overtake and pass in the same lane occupied by the vehicle being overtaken.” Just like the previous advice for cars, even if the lane is wide; even if you think you can fit, don’t pass in the same lane. There is an exception for this one too: motorcycles can pass cyclists and pedestrians in the same lane as long as they maintain a safe passing distance of at least three feet.

The last point of law we’ll cover is a bit contentious. By law, “No person shall operate a motorcycle between lanes of traffic.” The common term for this is lane-splitting.

Just this year there was a bill in front of our legislators as some motorcyclists tried to legalize lane splitting. Advocates for lane splitting claimed it is safer for motorcyclists during heavy traffic; opponents claimed it was more dangerous. Ultimately, the bill didn’t make it to law and lane splitting remains illegal in Washington.

Currently California is the only state that allows lane splitting.

The law does make exceptions for the last two points, in that it “shall not apply to police officers in the performance of their official duties.”

To support my position on the importance of awareness of motorcycles and motorcycle laws, allow me to present some recent crash data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. To put the risk in perspective, motorcycles account for 0.6 percent of all vehicle miles traveled in the US, but make up 14 percent of all traffic fatalities. Per vehicle mile traveled, motorcyclist fatalities occurred 29 times more frequently than occupants in cars.

Top factors in fatal motorcycle crashes:

▪ Alcohol impairment: In 27 percent of crashes the motorcyclist had an alcohol impairment level of .08 or above. In single-vehicle crashes 42 percent of motorcyclists were impaired.

▪ Speed: 33 percent of motorcyclists killed in crashes were speeding.

▪ Driver status: 27 percent of motorcyclists killed in crashes did not have a valid motorcycle license. Motorcyclists killed in crashes also had a higher rate of previous crashes, license suspensions, speeding convictions and DUI arrests than drivers killed in crashes.

The above information is tragic but also offers insight as to what it takes to survive on a motorcycle. Motorcyclists who always ride sober, travel at an appropriate speed, get the proper license (and training) and maintain a clean driving history put themselves in the “more likely to survive” category.

This data isn’t just here for the benefit of motorcyclists. In analyzing crashes between motorcycles and other vehicles, studies found that roughly two out of three times, the driver, not the motorcyclist, is at fault in the crash.

Given the vulnerability of a motorcycle rider and the data presented above, we need to do better at protecting motorcyclists. Those of us in cars have a responsibility to be alert drivers and give space to all vulnerable road users, whether they are cyclists, pedestrians or motorcyclists.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.