Heading north on I-280 towards San Francisco, four lanes in either direction, I’m moving with traffic at 75 mph, making good time and knowing it can’t last. And then the chain fire of brake lights starts a half mile up ahead and sweeps back towards me and the traffic slows and compresses, slows and compresses until the whole vast procession of gas-guzzling single occupant vehicles lurches to a hard stop, just like that.
But not me. I quickly gauge the distances and dynamics of the stalling snarl of vehicles with a practiced eye, take a deep breath, and ride on, diving into the great divide between the left two lanes. It’s a pulse-quickening moment of decision. It’s always been pulse-quickening. Years of cheating the cagers and miles on the dots have not made that break from the herd any easier.
But it’s only a moment like the moment of plunging sun-warmed into a cold surf; the acclimation is immediate, and within the first few car lengths I’ve warmed to the experience. More than warmed to it. I love it, this personal right of way, this undulating canal of bumpers and mirrors and malevolence, this wormhole through the time/space continuum of auto and truck traffic that serves also as a small metaphor for life as a biker.
When Woody Allen observed that California’s highest cultural contribution was the right turn on a red light, it was a good Manhattan-centric dig, but wide of the mark. We have a higher achievement than that and it remains the envy of riders nationwide and the flashpoint of citizen contempt, distaste and envy of motorcyclists. It’s called “lane-splitting,” “lane-sharing,” or more commonly among those of us who engage in the behavior chronically and joyously, “white-lining it.” It’s a quasi-legal maneuver inasmuch as although it’s not legally permitted per se, it’s not specifically outlawed either. Thus, it should be performed judiciously so as not to put the issue in law enforcement’s face. At least that’s what the responsible journalist in me tells me to write. He also tells me to point out as sanctimoniously as possible the position that lane-sharing is sometimes a practical necessity, and at all times an act of social responsibility—doing our small part to decongest the overburdened highways of our homeland. And as of this writing similar lane-splitting forbearance is under legal consideration in Oregon, Washington, Texas and Tennessee.
And that all sounds nice and might even be true, but that’s not why I do it. I do it for the buzz. For the pure unalloyed kinetic pleasure of the gambit. Never are my senses so sharp, my focus so fine-tuned as when I’m shooting that gap. Never is my acetylcholinesterase so keenly cued at my myoneural junctions, ready to fire my reflexes like pinball bumpers when the need arises. And the need arises frequently, more frequently now than it did a number years ago before the riotous proliferation of the cell phone and all that goes with it—texting, Facebook, twitter and the like.
That cultural development couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, either. In truth, I was getting bored with the white line. Where in earlier days I could always count on some exasperated clown in a traffic-bound sedan abruptly edging over to pinch me off just for the pure spite of it, the motoring community had begun to mellow. A good number of drivers were actually beginning to accept the reasonableness of white-lining it, understanding at last that it wasn’t any skin off their nose—they’d still be stuck in traffic whether I was or not, so why not cut the bikes some slack? I began to see drivers courteously clearing the gap, nosing over to let me pass more fluidly. Truckers in particular were hip to the deal and would make an effort to accommodate a biker, though the more prankish among them still get a kick out of farting their air brakes just as you come abreast and giving you a good start. It’s all part of the fun.
But it was never supposed to be fun, dammit, and the beauty of the cell phone abusers is that they have put the challenge and the peril back on the white line. Not out of meanness, but out of something far more unpredictable: an inattention bordering on clinical brain death. Where a pissed-off driver might mess with you, they’re at least aware enough of the situation to pull up short of creaming you once they’ve made their point. A cell phone abuser remains oblivious to the point of impact. They’ll just keep drifting distracted and take your leg off at the knee and never realize it until they hear the “whump.” The last words you’ll hear before you pass out are: “Damn… I’ll have to call you back, hon. I think I just killed a guy.”
In the last month I’ve ridden about 800 miles and of that a good 50 were spent merrily whipping down the white line, and I had two close calls. Both times the driver squirreled over in their lane and damn near clipped me, and both times the driver had a cell phone pressed to their head or in front of their face and when I yelled at them right there at their window they turned and looked out with the dull bovine gaze of someone just stirred from an opium dream.
Will that convince me to rein in my white-line proclivities? Not a chance. I’m hooked. But it has made me rethink my strategy. From here on I’ll be packing a can of touch-up spray paint and when these harrowing episodes occur, I’ll tag the car with a neon green happy face. That won’t reform the brain-dead driver, I realize, but at least my fellow white-liners threading the gauntlet behind me will know where the real excitement begins.
It’s all right here in the diaries.