Note: In this article about lane sharing, we’ll be using the terms “filtering” and “lanesplitting.” You’ll see different definitions from different people and jurisdictions for these practices. We define them as this:
Lanesplitting: The practice of riding your motorcycle between moving cars.
Filtering: The practice of riding your motorcycle between non-moving cars to get to the front at a stop in traffic.
Other sites may use slightly different terminology, and the definitions around the world vary by jurisdiction, but what we are not advocating for is lane sharing at high speed. Even in California, the most liberal lane sharing jurisdiction in North America, law enforcement frowns on that practice, because it is not safe.
It’s an idea whose time has come, it seems. Once again, state governments in the US are looking at the idea of lane sharing for motorcycles — changing the rules of the road so motorcycles can ride between cars under certain circumstances. This time, it’s Virginia and Arizona.
It’s something we don’t see in Canada, but we should. Here’s why:
Why lane sharing is good
It’s actually safer for motorcyclists, if done correctly.
The stereotype image of lane sharing is an unlicenced punk on a clapped-out supersport banging between cars, helmet mohawk flapping in the wind, en route to a date with the ER. The reality is that, in jurisdictions where lane sharing is legal, it’s not just the squids who are filtering ahead at stops, or splitting between lanes in stalled freeway traffic, it’s everyone — even the police. Especially the police.
I’ve split between lanes on California freeways, where it’s legal, and filtered ahead at stops there. But for a better perspective, I called up Shaun Devlin.
Devlin is sort of a fixer for a motorcycle manufacturer, running demo rides for customers in the summer, and also helping with press rides. He’s ridden all over the USA and seen it all, and before that, he had a 25-year career in law enforcement around southern California, where both filtering ahead at stops, and splitting between moving cars, are legal.
Devlin says the lane sharing works because, in an urban environment, it protects riders.
“A lot of motorcycles are struck from behind in heavy traffic when they’re sitting in the lane approaching a stop sign or stop line,” he says. “The second you get between the cars, you’re now protected.” He also says the same is true on freeways, if traffic is moving slowly. “A motorcyclist is always at their most vulnerable position riding when they’re kind of stuck and locked into being in one space.
“Being able to lane-split, when there’s safe room between cars, being able to pop through there and move on and have a better vision of what’s in front of you, when that semi’s not next to you, that makes all the difference in the world.”
He says that’s why lane sharing techniques are taught in police motorcycle schools in California, and why law enforcement uses those techniques. However, he also points out that riders sharing lanes must use courtesy and common sense — no high-speed lanesplitting, no banging on cars that won’t let you through.
“Motorcyclists have got to be smart too,” he says. “They can’t be pushy, they have to be respectful of the people in the cars and understand it’s a privilege, it’s not your right.”
Devlin’s observations are backed up by studies, going all the way back to the 1981 Hurt Report, which seemed to indicate lane sharing improved safety if done cautiously. More recently, in 2016, a UC Berkeley study said the same thing: it found lane sharing reduced the severity of crash injuries, if done at sensible speeds.
There’s also this 2011 study from Belgium, which says lane sharing is an excellent way to reduce road congestion. If you hear a car driver complain that lane sharing isn’t fair, because it lets motorcyclists cut ahead, share this study with them. Lane sharing lets everyone get ahead, not just riders.
“But it won’t work here!”
And now we come to the most common objection to lane sharing: “Sure, it works in California, or Europe, or Asia, or Australia, or South America, or Africa, but it won’t work here — the drivers are too crazy!” This is usually followed up by some muttering about immigrant drivers, and how it’d be a bloodbath as soon as lane sharing began, since drivers aren’t used to it.
First, let’s acknowledge the irony of saying “Immigrants from areas where lane sharing is common won’t be able to deal with the practice here.”
Second, let’s look at a jurisdiction where lane sharing was illegal, and then recently legalized. This is the exact scenario that’s held up as potential disaster, and it’s what happened in Utah in 2019. Formerly, the state’s traffic laws said lane sharing was illegal, and House Bill 149 changed the law to say:
(5) An individual may engage in lane filtering only when the following conditions exist:
(a) the individual is operating a motorcycle;
(b) the individual is on a roadway divided into two or more adjacent traffic lanes in the same direction of travel;
(c) the individual is on a roadway with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour or less;
(d) the vehicle being overtaken in the same lane is stopped;
(e) the motorcycle is traveling at a speed of 15 miles per hour or less; and
(f) the movement may be made safely.
That’s considerably more watered-down than California, where the Highway Patrol advised riders to not travel more than 10 mph faster than traffic, and not to split lanes at speeds over 30 mph. However, it’s still lane sharing, and if the naysayers were right, surely we’d see carnage on the streets?
That’s not the case. I contacted the Salt Lake City police department, and their media rep was unaware of any notable accidents or road rage incidents connected to lane filtering, as they call it there. He referred me to a sergeant with the state’s Public Safety department, who also happened to be a Kawasaki KLR rider. He said the same thing: there’d been a few minor incidents, but the one below, which appears to be fairly minor, grabbed considerable media attention, making more people aware of the law.
He says he’s heard similar stories from other riders on a non-official basis, but nothing wild and crazy. He says that’s probably because Utah put considerable effort into public awareness before lane filtering became law — see the video below, which educates the public and also gives riders guidelines.
When South Australia legalized lane filtering (slightly different rules than Utah, but similar idea), it produced a similar video, below. It’s aimed at riders, not cagers, but it does help with awareness.
By the way, Australian jurisdictions have been legalizing lane sharing over the past few years, and we haven’t heard of any big increase in traffic incidents down there, either.
What’s happening in Canada?
As stated at the start of the article, Virginia and Arizona are both considering lane sharing legalization right now, and over the past few years, so have Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Montana. Utah legalized lane filtering in 2019, and Hawaii legalized a very weak form of the practice as well. Lane sharing has been practised in California for years, although only recently officially recognized by government.
Here in Canada, officials in Toronto examined the idea in 2018, after Councillor Anthony Perruzza put the idea forward at a council meeting. Two years later, we’ve never heard the end result of their inquiries. The fact that the lane-sharing pilot project never went ahead is a bad sign, though.
We do, however, have the Lane Filter British Columbia page on Facebook, and the Motorcycle Filtering in Alberta page. Both these pages seem to be meeting with limited success for now (approximately 3,000 likes for the BC page, 1,300 for the Alberta page). The people behind these pages say they’ve been talking to law enforcement and government officials about getting lane sharing started in those provinces.
On a national scale, the Canadian Motorcycle Association ran a survey in 2019, asking what people thought about “Lane Splitting and Lane Filtering.” The result, as per the CMA’s website:
“Although the input was generally in favour of such initiatives, there were concerns about increased risk to the safety of the motorcyclists, and a strong recommendation that the authorities conduct a major educational campaign prior to implementation.
Given the CMA’s focus on safety, it is our position that, of the two practices, endorsement of the practice of lane-filtering is worthy of considerable more emphasis than that of lane-splitting. It is not expected that the practice of riding between and among other moving vehicles, even when all drivers are attentive and capable, can be accomplished without increased risk to the motorcyclist …”
You can see the CMA’s resulting policy here. The CMA basically says riding between stopped cars is safer than moving cars, so that’s what it wants to focus on. We haven’t heard of any CMA plans to mount a campaign to promote either practice, but that’s what the website says.
So it seems that while there are smaller groups or individuals talking to government officials, there’s no nation-wide movement to promote lane sharing. There also seems to be antipathy towards the term “lanesplitting,” although it’s been used in California for decades, and a bit of dislike towards the idea of riding between moving cars.
Does this make sense? Riding between slow-moving cars is a massive time-saver on California freeways, and is no doubt a major part of the traffic congestion solution proposed in the Belgian study in 2011. It’s my opinion that that is what we need to be aiming for, and that needs to be clear from the start. While it makes sense to start off slow with simple filtering at stops, the end goal should be towards riding through slow-moving traffic to bypass congestion. This should be emphasized in public education from the beginning.
Maybe you feel differently, and that’s fine: Nobody here wants to make you try lane sharing, in any form. But hopefully, for the rest of us, 2020 will be the year we see progress forward.