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Sen. Sheldon: Lane-sharing, no helmets safer for motorcyclists

Sen. Tim Sheldon changed his bill from allowing lane-splitting in just the far left lane, to all lanes of traffic. (AP)

Washington drivers stuck in traffic could soon see un-helmeted motorcyclists using lane-sharing to cruise along the left shoulder, thanks to bills introduced and co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch).

Sheldon co-sponsored Senate Bill 5007 to allow motorcycle riders 21 and older to ride without a helmet, provided they have liability insurance.

He told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson that many riders have told him it is actually safer to ride without a helmet because of increased visibility.

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“It’s about freedom, it’s freedom of choice,” he said.

Currently, 19 states allow motorcyclists to forgo the helmet.

“You’ve got statistics from groups that say this is unsafe; you’ve got statistics saying it’s even safer,” Sheldon said.

The bill is receiving push-back from Washington Traffic Safety Commission and the Washington State Patrol over safety concerns.

According to KIRO Radio’s Chris Sullivan, Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza testified how he crashed his motorcycle without a helmet on in Montana, where helmets are not mandatory, and was seriously injured.

“That’s an anecdotal personal experience, but Montana seems to survive,” Sheldon said. “They’re still a great state over there without helmets, so I think it’s possible.”

Lane-sharing

Though Sheldon only co-sponsored the helmet bill, he is the main sponsor of SB 5254, a bill that would legalize lane-sharing (also known as lane-splitting) for motorcyclists, allowing them to pass vehicles on the left.

Unlike California, where lane-sharing is legal in every lane, Sheldon’s bill would permit it on the left shoulder only — hence why he refers to it as lane-sharing rather than lane-splitting.

“I think it’s certainly more dangerous to go between that traffic,” Sheldon said, calling his bill “a compromise.”

He added that patrol officers tend not to favor the California law because it is more difficult to catch motorcyclists speeding between lanes.

Two years ago, Sheldon got a similar bill passed in the Senate.

Opponents say that the left shoulder has too much debris to be a safe driving lane. However, as Sheldon’s bill requires motorcyclists to go no faster than 25 miles per hour or 10 miles above the speed of traffic, whichever is slowest, “you’re … going slow, you’re going to see debris and certainly steer around it.”

Sheldon argued that, since northbound I-405 currently allows vehicles to use the right shoulder as a traffic lane during rush hour, this would not be much different.

There are a few reasons why it would be smarter to allow motorcycles in the left shoulder, according to Sheldon.

“Motorcycles are air-cooled, so in traffic, you need to keep moving to keep your machine functioning well,” he explained.

Also, he said, it reduces the threat of a motorcyclist getting rear-ended, and, ultimately, “gets people through traffic” in an increasingly gridlocked region.

“Those guys and gals are really exercising a great service for us because they reduce congestion,” he said. “They get on the left-hand side, go around people, and just get everyone moving a lot better. I think people will probably feel uncomfortable with it at first, but we’ve got to do some changing here.”

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