#314 Split Decision – Lane Splitting

The “right” to split lanes is on Smith’s radar in a big way. Here, he rejoins the argument … with polls and studies!

Last Sunday I left my home in Ladner, BC and rode right through the centre of Vancouver over the notoriously congested Lion’s Gate Bridge to Troll’s Restaurant in Horseshoe Bay. Although Google tells me that trip should take an hour and six minutes, I did the 49 kilometres in 37 minutes. I wasn’t speeding (well, no more than usual), and I didn’t run any red lights. The difference: it was 7am and there was no traffic.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could ignore rush hour traffic and just get on with your ride? Would you commute by motorcycle instead of car if you could cut your journey time in half? What if you could always be first away from the lights? Scythe through jams and laugh at holdups? This is simply what motorcyclists just about anywhere in the world outside North America have been doing for a century. But will it ever happen here?
A new study by the University of California at Berkeley concludes that lane splitting—practiced prudently—is not only more efficient but is also safer. The report’s findings show that lane splitting motorcyclists are no more likely to crash—if they’re travelling less than 15 mph faster than traffic, and if the traffic is moving at less than 50 mph.
Lane splitting motorcyclists are markedly less likely to suffer head injury, torso injury or fatality from impacts. Motorcyclists splitting lanes are less likely to be rear-ended. And (based on data including helmet use and blood alcohol levels) motorcyclists who lane split are more responsible. The bottom line: allowing motorcyclists to lane split is unlikely to increase crashes or fatalities.
Though California has effectively condoned lane splitting for decades, there is no statute that specifically permits the practice. But there soon will be. In May this year, California’s House of Assembly overwhelmingly approved Bill 51, which would allow motorcycle lane splitting largely in line with the UCB study recommendations. Washington may be next in line, though the bill now before the House in that state, as amended, would only allow lane “splitting” on the left of traffic in the left lane on a four-lane road.
Oregon had passed a similar motion allowing filtering/splitting/sharing in specific circumstances, but the bill died in committee. No other jurisdiction in Canada or the US allows lane splitting by motorcyclists. Some US states have specific regulations prohibiting it, but in most cases general statutes barring two vehicles in one lane side-by-side cover the practice. The UCB report is just the latest in a series of studies in Europe and the US that show lane splitting (or filtering) makes motorcycling safer in traffic without adding to the risk for car drivers. So why are legislators elsewhere dragging their feet?
I think there are maybe three major factors: first, allowing motorcyclists to filter through traffic could be seen as elevating our status in the eyes of the law—creating a superior class of road user, if you like. That wouldn’t sit well with many voters.
Second, most other road users would likely resent being stuck in traffic while Joe Biker filters to the front of the line. Even in Europe where lane splitting has never been illegal, drivers have been known to “squeeze” lane splitting motorcycles or even open doors in their path.
Thirdly, bikers have generally had a bad press, from The Wild One onward, regardless of whether or not they’re members of a “motorcycle club.” (Or is it that some bikers have given all of us a bad rap?)
There’s a general perception, enthusiastically embraced by many riders, that bikers are bad boys. It’s a view encouraged by skull-and-crossbones facemasks, open pipes and ape hanger handlebars. To many, allowing bikers to filter through traffic would be to condone or encourage that outlaw attitude. Equally anti-social are those speeding and weaving sportbike squids. Allowing such undesirables special privileges in traffic would be a tough sell.
I’d also have thought all motorcyclists would be keen to have lane splitting or filtering allowed, but that’s not the case. A poll by BCCOM, the BC Coalition of Motorcyclists found that while 91 per cent of respondents were in favour, nine per cent were against. Still, that’s a pretty good majority. Perhaps some of the naysayers are apprehensive of such a radical change. Sure, there would be a period of adjustment—especially among other road users. For good reason, European drivers are typically much more engaged in what’s happening around them on the road than the average North American soccer mom or phone-texting millennial.
Lane splitting has other implications for the biker community, too, but mostly positive. Legal lane splitting would encourage more people to take up motorcycling. Perhaps in summer in Canadian cities, we might even approach the magic 10 per cent of vehicles on the road—the percentage above which per capita crash rates for motorcycles drop significantly.
In English Speaking March 2014, I quoted Secretary General Jacques Compagne of ACEM (the European motorcycle industry association): “Ten per cent seems to be a critical tipping point,” he concluded.
Something else to consider: while a 272-kg adventure bike with aluminum panniers might be fine in Mongolia, it doesn’t work in the cut and thrust of lane sharing. European motorcycle commuters have evolved to favour slender, upright standard motorcycles—parallel twins and even singles—with narrow handlebars and a top box instead of side luggage, the better to slip between stopped cars.
So back to the question I asked in paragraph two. Based on the evidence, lane splitting should be allowed. But politicians put more faith in opinion than in evidence these days (was it ever thus?), and inertia always favours inaction. I’m not holding my breath.

Keeping Canadian riders informed and entertained since 1980.