Oregon lawmakers are taking another crack at letting motorcyclists travel between lanes in slow or stopped traffic, two years after then-Gov. Kate Brown unexpectedly vetoed a similar bill.
Senate Bill 422 passed the 30-member Senate on Tuesday with a 27-2 vote. It now heads to the House, where representatives in both parties have signed on as sponsors.
Under the bill, motorcyclists would be able to travel between lanes on multi-lane highways with a speed limit of at least 50 mph, but only when traffic has slowed to 10 mph or less. Motorcyclists riding between cars could travel no more than 10 mph faster than the flow of traffic.
The idea has been pushed consistently by motorcyclists, who argue the policy can improve traffic congestion and leaves them less vulnerable to being rear-ended by inattentive drivers. As they did two years ago, the bill’s proponents flooded the Senate Judiciary Committee with testimony supporting the idea.
“Perhaps one of the more dangerous situations for any on-highway motorcyclist is being caught in congested traffic, where stop-and-go vehicles, distracted and inattentive vehicle operators and environmental conditions pose an increased risk of physical contact with another vehicle or hazard,” Nicholas Haris, a representative for the American Motorcyclist Association, wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “Even minor contact under such conditions can be disastrous for motorcyclists.”
If the bill makes it through the Senate and receives gubernatorial approval, Oregon would join at least four other western states in endorsing some form of the practice, which is known as lane splitting, lane sharing or lane filtering, depending on the exact details of the behavior allowed.
California currently allows lane splitting under different circumstances than Oregon’s proposed law, as does Montana. Utah allows a similar concept when traffic is stopped at an intersection, a law advocates argue has helped reduce deaths. A policy in Arizona took effect in September.
Washington does not allow the practice, though is considering legislation that could change that. One frequently cited study from the University of California Berkeley concluded that lane splitting can be safe under certain conditions.
SB 422 prompted virtually no debate on the Senate floor on Tuesday – just a tongue-in-cheek comment from Sen. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford. A motorcyclist himself, Brock Smith jokingly requested an amendment “that we send all the endorsed motorcycle riders, if this bill were to pass, an organ-donor card.”
While Brock Smith voted in favor of the bill, concerns that allowing motorcyclists to split lanes would make traffic less safe have hampered the proposal in the past.
In announcing her decision to veto the idea in 2021, Brown wrote to lawmakers that “many stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies and members of the public, remain concerned that lane filtering is unsafe for both the motorcyclists and the drivers sharing the road, due to the serious injuries and death that commonly result from motorcycle-involved accidents.”
Brown’s decision was informed in part by the Oregon Transportation Safety Committee, an advisory body that worried about allowing motorcyclists to ride in the blind spots of other drivers.
In order to address safety concerns, lawmakers this year included a provision to the lane-splitting bill that would make violating the law’s provisions a class A violation, punishable by up to a $2,000 fine. The offense of unlawful passing on a motorcycle or moped is currently a class B violation that can carry a maximum $1,000 penalty. “That was done to make it more likely that people will follow the law,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, a chief sponsor of the bill. “What we’re doing here in making this legal is not saying that we support violation of the law. We say we support lane filtering as long as you follow the law.”
There’s at least one indication that a gubernatorial veto might not be in the cards this year. In 2021, then-House Speaker Tina Kotek – now the state’s governor – voted in favor of the proposal.