Opinion: Making the split

For the first two years of my motorcycling life, I lane-split everywhere and never thought twice about it. I lived in the U.K. then and didn’t know any different. It’s the country of national driving pride, don’t forget, and motorcyclists lane-split and filter there because it’s the safest and most effective way to get about.

Fifteen years later, I found myself living in the UK again for another couple of years, so I bought a Suzuki GS550 and commuted every day into London. Sometimes, I had to take the car. If there was no traffic, like at 4 am, the 40-kilometre drive would take 45 minutes and if there was regular traffic, like at any time other than 4 am, the drive would take two hours. On the motorbike, though, it would take 40 minutes in light traffic and 45 minutes in heavy traffic, every single time.

British drivers are generally sympathetic to motorcyclists: they’re usually getting wet, and they’re breathing in smog. Many people now commute by bike or scooter, so there’s no class distinction, as there used to be. In fact, Princes Harry and William are known to travel around on their high-powered Ducatis and Triumphs because they can’t be recognized behind a tinted visor; there’ll be a security officer close behind on another bike, trying to keep up.

Not long ago, the City of London changed the road rules to allow motorcycles and scooters to use the bus lanes, though they must still give way to buses. It just makes sense to do so if the space is there, and it’s further encouragement to leave the car at home. And in some cities, Paris for example, there are motorcycle taxis that will guarantee to get you to your destination faster than any car. A businessman in suit and tie will sit comfortably on the back of a Gold Wing, be covered by a special blanket to provide warmth and protection from rain and grime, and think nothing of it as the bike whips through traffic.

A Honda Gold Wing motorcycle taxi deals easily with traffic in Paris.

It’s not all perfect, of course. I once filtered through at least five kilometres of backed-up, single-lane traffic to the head of the queue, waiting at a temporary traffic light to pass some roadworks. I rode slowly and steadily to the front, as riders always do in the U.K., but when the light turned green, there was no way the guy in the van behind was letting me stay ahead. He’d probably spent half-an-hour in that lineup and was pissed at my nonchalance. I waved him by at the first opportunity.

As well, there were really no rules around it, as there are now in the Highway Code of most jurisdictions that permit it – which is pretty much everywhere. As such, the legendary London dispatch riders would take huge liberties all the time to make the squeeze through traffic. One time, I was following a dispatch rider on a Yamaha XT600 and he rode up behind a Mini in one lane and a little convertible in the other; there was not enough space to fit his wide handlebars between the small cars but he didn’t even slow down: he popped a wheelie, lifted the bars above the two roofs and rode right through. I stayed back, wide-eyed.

When I returned to Canada after the second stay in Britain, I wrote a column for the Toronto Star that advocated for lane-splitting. I called up a number of experts to ask for their opinions and to find out if the practice is dangerous, but nobody – from the British Automobile Association to the California Highway Patrol and half a dozen others in-between, could offer any evidence of its danger. In fact, they vouched for its overall safety.

“But it will never work here,” people say. “Canadian drivers are maniacs, and we’re not used to it.” We are, however, a polyglot of drivers from literally every country in the world, almost all of which allow lane-splitting, so we are used to it. If we’re not, we can get used to it, just like the Australian drivers in Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales, after the practice was recently legalized there. The amendment to those Highway Codes permits lane-splitting if traffic is moving at less than 30 km/h, and not in school zones or near pedestrian crossings. Initially, the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia opposed the legalization but then changed its mind, as a senior policy manager told ABC News.

“There was a potential for it to compromise road safety and what we’re saying now is that the rules they’ve introduced … minimize that,” said Mark Borlace, who added: “An education program is needed to let motorists and pedestrians know that it’s legal now. Currently, most people have grown up knowing that it’s illegal.”

Drivers here just don’t want it, though, because they don’t want others to get through more quickly than them, like the van driver in England. And there aren’t enough organized riders in Canada to bring about any change.

In his excellent opinion piece this week, Zac offers a well-reasoned argument for why Canadian jurisdictions should permit lane-splitting, but more important, he offers a very smart suggestion for introducing the practice. Every rider in the country should think about this and then consider raising the topic with their MPP and maybe even organizing a protest ride. There’s no reason why we can’t catch up to the rest of the world and be safer, too.

3 thoughts on “Opinion: Making the split”

  1. I think lane-splitting could work in Canada… if there were a major education to inform car-drivers why it’s acceptable.

    A couple of summers back, a friend and I were stopped in a long queue of traffic, as there was some single-lane paving up ahead. A couple of motorcyclists rode up along the shoulder (not the same thing as lane-splitting, I know) to the front of the queue. My friend just completely freaked out and started swearing and givnig them the middle finger. “How dare they cheat and get ahead like that?”

    I tried to point out that it didn’t make sense for a couple of guys dressed in riding leathers to sit and back in the sun, when they could filter up to the front and get well ahead as soon as the traffic started moving. She just wasn’t having any of it.

  2. Just got back to BC from almost 3 weeks in Italy. There are thousands of scooters and bikes in Rome and Florence. They ride more aggressively in traffic than I would even consider attempting. Lane splitting is a way of life there, often doing so at impressive speed. Cars, trucks, and buses seem to accept this, almost without notice! I never saw an accident, or even a close call.
    If the number of vehicles on the road continues to increase as it has over the last few years, the day will come for lane splitting in Canada, but a massive information and education campaign will be essential.

  3. Excellent post with some well reasoned arguments. We have to keep applying the pressure to let the general population that lane filtering is something that is done in many countries and it’s done safely.

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