do motorcycles have the right of way

When Do Motorcycles Have The Right-Of-Way?

do motorcycles have the right of way

Motorcycles are smaller, lighter, and can generally maneuver faster than other vehicles on the road, so they should always have the right-of-way – right? Not necessarily. Despite their smaller size, motorcycles are motor vehicles for purposes of traffic laws and do not have any special privileges – with one exception in California.

Determining Who Has the Right-of-Way

Traffic laws specify when a particular motorist is to yield the right-of-way to another motorist. A common right-of-way situation occurs at a four-way stop intersection. The following rules help motorists to clear four-way stop intersections safely and efficiently:

  • The first vehicle to arrive at the intersection is the first to proceed.
  • When two vehicles in crossing lanes arrive at the same time, the vehicle to the right proceeds first.
  • When two vehicles from opposite directions arrive at the same time, the vehicle proceeding straight has the right-of-way, and both can proceed if neither is turning.
  • When two vehicles arrive at the same time from opposite directions and both are turning onto the same road, the vehicle making a left turn must yield to the vehicle making a right turn.

Another common right-of-way traffic situation occurs when one vehicle is waiting to make a left turn in front of oncoming traffic that does not need to stop. The left-turning motorist must yield the right-of-way to oncoming traffic. In this situation, and despite having the right-of-way, a significant number of motorcycle accidents occur when a larger vehicle fails to yield to an oncoming biker.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that of the 2,741 fatal crashes between a motorcycle and another vehicle in 2020, 42 percent of the collisions occurred when the other vehicle turned left in front of the motorcycle.

Motorcyclists’ Right to Lane Split in California

Lane splitting is a right-of-way granted to motorcyclists due to their size and maneuverability while riding in slower traffic. Lane splitting occurs when a motorcyclist rides between two lanes of traffic that may or may not be moving.

Lane splitting is a controversial practice some motorists believe increases the likelihood of motorcycle accidents. California is the only state where lane splitting is legal without restriction. A few other states allow a modified form of lane splitting, but the practice is still illegal in most states.

The California Highway Patrol (CHP) acknowledges that lane splitting can be a dangerous activity and advises motorcyclists to use extreme caution when lane splitting. CHP also reminds other motorists to remember the following when sharing the road with motorcycles:

  • It is legal for motorcycles to lane split in California.
  • It is illegal for a motorist to intentionally block or impede a motorcyclist from lane splitting.
  • It is illegal to open a vehicle door to keep a motorcyclist from lane splitting.
  • Drivers in the far left lane should move to the left side of their lane to give a motorcycle plenty of room to pass.

Lane Splitting and the Right-of-Way at a Stoplight

Motorcycles are most likely to lane split when traffic is moving slowly or is stopped. Traffic may be stopped due to a traffic signal. A motorcycle may move forward to the point at which traffic is stopped. But when the light turns green, does the motorcyclist or the car have the right-of-way to proceed through the intersection?

While the law does not explicitly address the situation, CHP Sgt. Brian Pennings says all drivers have a responsibility not to interfere with each other, so both the motorcycle and the other vehicle have the right-of-way. Sgt. Pennings advises that since motorcycles are lighter and can get going faster, they should be allowed to move ahead and pull in front.

Lane Splitting Should be Done with Safety in Mind

Motorcycles may legally have the right-of-way to drive between cars in California but it doesn’t mean they can do so in a way that increases the chances of a crash. CHP has compiled a list of safety tips motorcyclists should be mindful of if they choose to lane split.

  • Pay attention to the driving environment – road conditions, other vehicles, weather, and time of day.
  • The faster a motorcycle goes relative to other traffic, the greater the likelihood of an accident.
  • Increased speed has a positive correlation with increased danger.
  • It is safer for a motorcycle to split between the far left lanes of traffic.
  • Avoid lane splitting between large vehicles like buses or semis.
  • It is illegal to ride on the right shoulder.
  • Make an effort to be visible to other motorists – avoid riding in blind spots, wear bright clothing, and keep your bike’s headlight on.

Motorcyclists who choose to lane split in a way that CHP determines is jeopardizing the safety of other drivers can be ticketed.

Traffic Laws that Apply to Motorcycles

In California, motorcycles must follow the same rules of the road as all other drivers. A motorcyclist is to be held to the same responsibilities and given the same rights as any other motorist. However, because of their smaller size, motorcycles are allowed to do some things in traffic other types of vehicles are not able to do.

Common Sense and Motorcycle Right-of-Ways

When it comes to motorcycles and any other motorized vehicles on the road, the motorcycle and its rider are going to get the worst of it in a crash. Even in traffic situations where motorcycles legally have the right-of-way, it can be a deadly mistake not to anticipate that other vehicles will fail to yield.

In addition to being aware of the need to surrender the right-of-way in some situations, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) says motorcyclists can help themselves in all types of traffic situations by practicing the following:

  • Make sure to be seen by other motorists
  • Communicate driving intentions clearly
  • Leave plenty of room between vehicles
  • Be prepared to act quickly

Fewer accidents happen and more drivers arrive at their destinations safely when everyone on the road pays attention to what they are doing, appreciates the risks involved in driving, and exercises a little common courtesy. When a motorcycle is hit by a car, the injuries could be severe or fatal. If you or a loved one are involved in a motorcycle accident, contact our California motorcycle accident lawyer at Curtis Legal Group for a free consultation.