#276 Uncommon Sense : Lane Splitting

Lane splitting is inherently a dangerous maneuver practised only by a handful of scofflaws in places like California and England. Right?
Not so, says Robert Smith, who suggests that “filtering” is a highly under-appreciated form of safe road sharing. One study supports that.

If you’ve read even a couple of my columns over the last few years, you’ll know there are things I’m passionate about. Among them: the inadequacy of driver training and testing; the serious road hazard still presented by driver distraction; and the tendency for politicians to marginalize motorcycling as a dangerous fringe activity practised exclusively by knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers.
But most of all, and for obvious reasons, I have a special interest in how we might reduce the number and severity of crashes involving motorcycles. So I was keen to read a couple of recent studies that both reached similar controversial conclusions: lane sharing (AKA lane splitting or “filtering”) is not only expedient and relatively safe, but could also reduce motorcycle fatalities.
In his paper Lane Sharing: a Global Solution for Motorcycle Safety, Steve Guderian cites National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data showing that rear-end crashes are the most common type of multi-vehicle collision in the US (and, presumably in Canada), and that motorcyclists are disproportionately represented in the numbers. Guderian also notes that the potential severity of a rear-ender for a motorcyclist is much greater than for a car driver, whether the car hits the bike or vice-versa. The report uses NHTSA’s numbers to show that bikers are significantly less likely to die in rear-end crashes in California, where lane sharing is legal, than in otherwise comparable states where it’s not. Guderian’s conclusion: if properly executed, lane sharing is safer for bikers than staying in lane.
A comprehensive literature review on motorcycle lane sharing carried out for the Oregon Department of Transportation considered data from a UK Department of Transportation report of 2004 and the landmark 2009 MAIDS study produced by ACEM, the European motorcycle manufacturers’ trade body. The MAIDS study examined 921 crashes involving motorcycles and concluded that only 0.45 per cent could be attributed to lane sharing (the overwhelming majority of bike crashes occurred when the motorcyclist was riding in line with traffic). Similarly, the UK study reported that lane sharing was implicated in just five per cent of motorcycle crashes.
Though both reports said more research was needed, they concluded that there was no significant correlation between lane sharing and increased motorcycle crashes; and lane sharing crashes were less likely to be fatal than a rear ender.
The ODOT report proposed that, for lane sharing, “the greatest issue is driver expectation,” where a driver does not expect to be sharing lanes with a motorcycle. To counter this problem, Surrey County Council in the UK places signs at intersections where motorcyclists like to “filter” through stationary traffic, warning drivers to expect bikes alongside.
The reports also cite the numerous benefits of lane sharing, both for traffic planners and bikers. Allowing bikes to “filter” between lanes of stationary or slow-moving traffic encourages more riders on the road, because using a motorcycle this way optimizes commuting time. That means fewer idling vehicles and reduced congestion. In recognition of this, London exempts motorcycles from the city’s daily £8 (about $13) congestion fee.
Lane sharing, of course, is legal in most other parts of the world, including all of Europe. But to listen to lane sharing opponents, you’d expect carnage on the streets of Rome, Paris and London. That simply isn’t the case, as the MAIDS study confirms.
In most European cities, a “PTW” (ACEM’s generic term for all powered two-wheelers) is the vehicle of choice. The most popular rides are big-wheel scooters of around 150-250cc. These offer sparkling acceleration, return around three litres/100 km of fuel (while also having to meet stringent Euro III emission targets), and slip easily between cars at traffic signals, They offer good weather protection (especially with a built-in rain cape) and are easy to park. A study carried out in Melbourne, Australia, where lane sharing is legal, also concluded that commuting by motorcycle offered the most consistent journey times, and often the fastest.
And before you cite more favourable European or Antipodean weather as a factor in motorcycle commuting, Amsterdam—at about the same latitude as Red Deer, Saskatoon or Prince Rupert—teems with PTWs. And consider this: the London Ambulance Service uses motorcycles to get paramedics to emergency situations because it’s the fastest way through traffic.
Volunteer motorcyclists are also used extensively in the UK to move time-sensitive shipments—such as live organs for transplant—because it’s the fastest, most reliable method. Buy only because they can lane split.
The biggest challenge to getting Canada’s provincial legislators on board is inertia. Motorcyclists aren’t a big enough bloc to carry much voting weight, and Joe Chevy is unlikely to be in favour of scooters zipping by him while he’s gridlocked on the 401. However, the fact that ODOT got as far as commissioning a literature review on lane sharing means Oregon must consider it a viable option.
In BC’s lower mainland, year-round riding is certainly possible, and encouraging PTW use by allowing lane sharing would help alleviate congestion as well as reduce CO2 emissions.
It’s time a forward-thinking politician and committed motorcyclist—like BC’s Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom, for example—took a run at it. You can reach him at: blair.lekstrom.mla@leg.bc.ca