Now I’m the editor, let me slam my fist against the desk and yell at the government bureaucrat standing opposite. “Show me the research you’re talking about!” I shout. “Prove you’re not an idiot!” And the bureaucrat just shrugs. “It looks like it’s dangerous,” he or she says. “Just one life saved is worth all the legislation. Live with it. Literally.”
The bureaucrat could be anyone from a low-level advisor to the deputy minister of transportation. I’ve asked the question of three provincial ministers now, though none of the current politicians: Will you consider allowing motorcycles to filter between lanes – to speed their rider’s journey, make their bikes safer, and relieve traffic congestion? And I always got the dismissive half-smile and shake of the head. There are far more important matters on the table, after all, so nothing was going to change under their watch.
“In heavy traffic, some motorcycle and moped drivers try “lane splitting” by driving on the line between lanes of traffic. This is extremely dangerous. Do not do it,” says the Ontario government’s official motorcycles handbook. “It puts you too close to other vehicles. Other drivers do not expect a vehicle to be in that space. Just a small movement, such as a vehicle starting to change lanes or a door opening, can cause a collision because there is no place else for you to go.”
It’s frustrating. Just about every jurisdiction outside Canada and the United States recognizes the benefits of lane-filtering and allows it. California allows it, and has research to show it’s safer than being stuck in traffic, but nowhere else in North America permits it. Washington and Oregon considered it, and B.C. thought about it, but the bureaucrats won the day. The progressive Australian governments of New South Wales and Queensland recently changed the law to allow it. So why the dismissive shrug here?
I’m slamming my fist against the desk because I’ve just come back from France, where motorcyclists routinely filter through congested traffic, with no issues and little added danger. There’s not a single study I’ve seen that shows filtering to be more dangerous overall. In those few cases where motorcyclists have been knocked off their bikes while filtering, they’re not usually seriously hurt. I returned via a stop in San Francisco, and it’s the same there. “I don’t even think about it,” said my airport driver, a retired deputy sheriff. “They ride between lanes and get where they’re going, and I just watch for bikes before I change lanes. I’ve never seen an accident because of it.”
There are guidelines in California, set down by the highway patrol. The two biggies are to ride at no more than 10 mph over the speed of traffic – you know that’s 16 km/h, right? – and to not lane-split when the speed of traffic is more than 30 mph. The CHP wants you to be reasonable, responsible, respectful, and aware of what’s happening in the roadway. Well, duh. Sounds smart to me. The law itself, tabled last year to allow lane-splitting everywhere in the state, is more liberal, allowing bikes to ride at 15 mph over the speed of traffic and not exceed 50 mph.
(Under “respectful”, the CHP guidelines say: “don’t rely on loud pipes to keep you safe, loud pipes often startle people and poison the attitude of car drivers toward motorcyclists.” Couldn’t agree more, but that’s a fist-thump for another day.)
I’m an advocate of lane-filtering because I used to live in London, England, and did it all the time with no issues. I lived outside the city and worked in Camden, and if there was no traffic, it would take just over half-an-hour to drive or ride the 40-kilometre commute. If there was traffic, the trip in the car would take more than two hours, but on the bike, it added only 10 minutes. My GS550 was pretty crappy, but it did the job and meant I chose two wheels over four every time. In fact, in London, motorbikes are allowed to use the bus lanes provided they yield to buses, which is probably a good idea for everyone.
(Another aside. Motorcycle couriers in Europe are nutters and don’t really help promote lane-splitting, but if they didn’t do it, they’d be out of a job. I once rode behind a courier on an old XT500 who came up behind a Mini and an MG. His bars were too wide to make it between them, so he popped up the front wheel and gunned it through, bars up over the roofs. I didn’t try to follow, but paused in awe. I was not worthy.)
Advocates of lane-filtering say riders are less likely to be rear-ended in traffic, more likely to remain cool and comfortable because they’re moving, and more likely to take their bike instead of their car or SUV. They claim that moving 10 per cent of people out of cars and onto bikes can reduce traffic congestion by 40 per cent.
That’s never going to be a permanent solution in Canada because almost all of us also already own a car, so if it’s a bit wet, or a bit cold, we’ll park the bike and sit in traffic with our coffees and cell phones and radios. That’s what we do now, after all, because there’s not much incentive to transfer to the smaller vehicle. Some cities offer free parking, but it takes just as long to get there if you can’t filter, and chances are you’ll arrive hot and sweaty, or chilled, in all but a few spring and fall months.
That’s why I’m in a grumpy mood, and I’m slamming my fist on the desk. I’m hot and sweaty and late. I guess I’ll drive in tomorrow in my SUV. And the bureaucrat shrugs. Hey – if it saves just one life… Except it doesn’t, and it maybe even makes the ride a little more risky. But the bureaucrat doesn’t know. Never even been on a bike – looks far too dangerous.