We were finishing up the KTM 1290 launch earlier this month, and we were in a hurry to get back to headquarters. We made good time heading down through the mountains, but by the time we reached the California freeway, it was too late. We hit gridlock, with cars backed up as far as you could see.
KTM’s ride guide edged between two cars. He looked back, as if to ask: Are you ready for this? We were, and the six of us split between slow-moving cars and filtered ahead at stops for the rest of the way to KTM’s HQ, cutting at least an hour off our return trip.
Nobody cut us off. In fact, a lot of cars moved over in their lanes to make room for us. And it was a great reminder: It’s time this was made legal in Canada.
It’s bizarre. Lane-splitting (riding between moving cars) and filtering (moving ahead between cars to the front, at stops) are legal almost everywhere in the world, even in Europe with its notoriously nanny-state governments. You can’t carry a proper pocketknife in the UK, but you can filter between cars with impunity, as long as you’re doing it responsibly. But for some reason, North America is terrified of the idea. In all 10 Canadian provinces and three territories, you’ll get a ticket if you ride your motorcycle between lanes of cars. Even in the US, where dozens of states allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets, 49 of 50 states don’t allow the practice.
But at least in the US, a lot of people are trying to make lanesplitting and filtering legal. Last year, there were efforts to legalize the practices in five US states (stories about it here and here).
Here in Canada? Nothing. A few motorcyclists out in BC have been making some noise, trying to get the provincial government to make the practice legal, but so far, there’s been no real concerted effort by any rider representation organizations, and certainly none by politicians, to make lanesplitting or filtering legal.
Why it should change
It’s simple: the current legislation against lane-splitting and filtering is dumb, and it’s holding us back—not just motorcyclists, but commuters in general.
In the past half-century, Canadians have increasingly moved to urban areas. More than 80 per cent of Canadians now live in urban areas, and that means transport systems designed decades ago are now overtaxed. Every time I fly into Pearson, I see long lines of commuters backed up on Toronto’s roadways, and Vancouver is even worse. Canada’s other major cities are the same. Even backwaters like Halifax have problems with gridlock.
Motorcycles can play a big part in reducing that gridlock. Take the 2012 study by Transportation and Mobility Leuven. In 2012, the Belgian researchers found that if 10 per cent of the cars on the road were replaced with motorcycles, congestion would drop by 40 per cent, and if 25 per cent of cars were replaced with motorcycles, congestion would disappear. The reason for this is that motorcycles take up less space in traffic, and the study assumes that at stoplights, motorcycles will filter between lanes to the front. Translation: Filtering saves everybody time, not just motorcyclists.
Not only does lane-splitting play a role in reducing traffic gridlock, it also makes motorcyclists safer. In a 2016 study, the University of California Berkeley investigated 5,969 crashes involving motorcyclists, including 997 riders who were lanesplitting when they crashed. The study found lane-splitting motorcyclists were less likely to suffer head, torso or extremity injuries, and also less likely to be killed in a crash.
Common sense says there’s one other good reason to allow motorcyclists to filter ahead at stops — it greatly reduces the chance of being rear-ended at a red light.
How it should change
When California kinda-sorta-legalized lanesplitting, it left the state’s Highway Patrol to develop the guidelines. The police have since removed the information from their website, but it’s still available elsewhere if you have strong Google-Fu. In short, along with some best-practices recommendations, they wanted riders to restrict their speed while lanesplitting to a maximum of 10 mph (15 km/h) faster than cars, and to only lanesplit when traffic is moving at 30 mph (50 km/h) or less.
The majority of Canadians are not used to lanesplitting, so seeing bikes zip by while they’re stuck in traffic might result in road rage confrontations, and inattentive drivers would likely also be a danger, as cars are much more likely to obstruct lanesplitting riders if they haven’t seen the practice before. So here’s an easy solution: ease the practice in by first legalizing filtering at stops.
While splitting between moving cars might seem a bit dicey to some, every frustrated motorcyclist stuck in traffic knows it’d be super-easy and pretty safe to ride between cars to the front at a stoplight. The chances of a blue-haired granny cutting you off in her Buick are pretty low if she’s already at a standstill. After a few years of legalized filtering, it should be a lot easier to convince everyone that lanesplitting will work too.
Lanesplitting also needs a public makeover. For too long, it’s been portrayed as the practice of squids with more interest in popping wheelies than wearing proper gear. In reality, that same Berkeley study I mentioned earlier says lanesplitting riders were more likely to be wearing proper full-face helmets and were actually traveling at lower speeds than the other riders whose crashes were included in the study. Education will play a huge part in a smooth legalization process.
The public makeover is probably what needs to happen first, if we’re going to see lanesplitting or filtering in Canada, combined with pressure on provincial politicians.
Why it hasn’t changed (yet)
Because politicians hate the idea of trying anything outside the box. Because cars hate the idea of motorcyclists getting ahead in a line. Because nobody in Canada is pushing for it. Because even some motorcyclists are vehemently opposed to the idea.
Those last two obstructions are the ones that really bug me. It’s possible there have been attempts by Canada’s larger riding organizations to promote filtering/lanesplitting, but if so, I haven’t heard of them. And that’s probably because there are some motorcyclists who don’t think Canada should legalize these practices. They usually say it’s because they don’t think it’s safe, to which I’d reply: then don’t do it. Just because these riders want to be stuck in traffic doesn’t mean the rest of us like it.
This summer, you can expect another string of stories about U.S. states considering lanesplitting legalization, but I doubt we’ll see anything in Canada. CMG will continue to tell people how it is, but we can only do so much. If you want to see change in your province, it’s up to you. Get together with your riding buddies, get organized, and talk to your local riding clubs, any riding organizations you belong to, and then go to the politicians. If we’re going to make this happen, it has to start somewhere.