#292 Lane Splitting: A case for split personality

Though lane splitting has been the privilege of California motorcyclists for decades, policy makers have never officially confirmed or denied its existence … till now. California recently moved to define and ratify the traffic maneuver. Could the same decision be made in Canada?

In Canada, lane sharing or splitting is illegal for motorcycles, right? Not exactly. It depends what the other vehicle is. As far as I’ve been able to determine, sharing a lane with another vehicle is perfectly legal in most provinces—as long as the other vehicle is also a motorcycle. In fact, according to section 194 (4) of BC’s Motor Vehicle Act, it’s okay for three motorcycles to ride side-by-side in a lane—as long as at least one is overtaking or passing.
But is lane sharing with another motorcycle safe? BC’s own motorcycling manual, Road Sense for Riders (produced under guidance from the Canada Safety Council and the Insurance Corporation of BC) says, “Don’t ride in the same lane next to another motorcycle”—even though motorcycle cops do it all the time.
But lane sharing isn’t the same as lane splitting: lane sharing, I guess, is two vehicles side-by-side in the same lane moving more or less at the same speed. Lane splitting (or filtering, as it’s known in Europe) means passing other stationary or slow moving vehicles by “splitting” two lanes. Broadly speaking, in most of North America, the former seems to be legal (for two motorcycles, anyway), but the latter is illegal. And then there’s California …
It’s said legal lane splitting in California dates to the time when motorcycles were air-cooled and would overheat if stopped in summer traffic. And because of the favourable climate, motorcycles are also more common in the Golden State. But which came first is moot: did more motorcycles advance lane splitting, or has legal lane splitting put more bikes on the road?
Whatever. Though there’s no California statute that expressly allows lane splitting, there simply isn’t one that prohibits it. So custom and practice applies, with the overriding proviso that it’s done in a “safe and prudent” manner. Until recently, “safe and prudent” was in the opinion of the California Highway Patrol officer who pulled you over—a less than satisfactory situation.
But now, in a move that must be unprecedented (and is presumably supported by California’s traffic courts), CHP has issued guidelines for what it considers to be safe and prudent lane splitting. There it is in black and white: lane splitting instructions. Most are common sense, of course, like not going more than 10 mph faster than other vehicles, not trying to squeeze through where your bike won’t fit etc. But some are more eyebrow-raising: riding with headlights on high beam is recommended, as is a preference for splitting between lanes one and two (the furthest left lanes) on the freeway, and only when traffic is stationary or moving below 30 mph.
This is much, much more than a grudging toleration of a semi-scofflaw activity only practiced by suicidal squids. It’s a full-on acknowledgment that lane splitting is a viable and beneficial method of negotiating stopped or slow-moving traffic, and that a motorcycle is a perfectly acceptable tool for doing it. And as long as you follow the rules, no CHP will pull you over. No wooly, loose and opinion-based interpretations of semi-applicable or non-specific laws, but solid rules for avoiding a traffic ticket.
Even more surprising is that the guidelines include instructions for drivers being passed by a lane-splitting motorcycle, including a reminder that impeding a lane-splitter by “squeezing” them (deliberately closing down the space between cars in lane) or by opening a car door is illegal and could get you a ticket instead!
Could it work in Canada? California’s major conurbations enjoy a climate that encourages year-round motorcycling. So not only is motorcycling seen as a viable and practical way of commuting or getting around, but drivers are also used to having motorcycles appear beside them. In our climate-challenged country, motorcycling is mostly seasonal, and motorcycles are lumped in with motorhomes and ATVs as “recreational vehicles.” Rodney Dangerfield would understand.
But if anywhere could follow California’s lead, BC just might have. Former BC Transport Minister Blair Lekstrom favourably received a draft proposal from the BC Coalition of Motorcyclists, but he’s no longer the Minister, and any change of government in the May 2013 provincial elections will mean BCCOM going back to square one. Lekstrom admitted that any move toward lane splitting would also involve a massive information campaign. Public money to endorse motorcycling? About as probable as porcine aviation.
California’s “safe and prudent” guidelines notwithstanding, lane splitting is nothing like as dangerous as it looks if you’ve never done it. A literature survey carried out for the Oregon Department of Transportation concluded that lane splitting was a minor factor in motorcycle collisions in Europe, and other reports have suggested a reduction in “rear-ender” injuries where lane splitting is allowed. If like mine, your formative motorcycling years were spent in a lane-splitting-friendly city, it’s as natural as putting on your helmet and pressing the starter. Could it happen in Canada? There’s almost no upside for any politician to initiate a change in the law—unless one is a motorcyclist, like Lekstrom. So my money is on the status quo, though I’ll continue to advocate for filtering.