Opinion: The truth behind lane filtering

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It still astonishes me that we’re arguing in Canada about lane filtering. Most of the rest of the world practises it, for us to see its pros and cons, and yet we can’t agree on whether or not it’s safe or even a good idea. This isn’t even a riders vs. non-riders thing – Canadian motorcyclists in general just can’t agree.

The fact is, it looks unsafe, and that’s enough for most people to make up their minds. And yes, when it’s done at speed, it is unsafe. I know. I used to do it all the time.

I spent the first two years of my motorcycling life, at 16 and 17 years old, riding in the U.K., where filtering is both legal and assumed. I took two separate safety courses and passed two separate riding certifications, and each time, the instructors stressed that when riding between vehicles in traffic, you needed to keep your eyes open. That was it. No speed limits or advisories, no “filtering or splitting,” just be aware of your surroundings.

So if there was space, I’d always squirt through traffic. It was no big deal and everyone on two wheels did it. Dispatch riders made a living doing it, delivering packages around the city, unaffected by congestion. They still do, and every European city has couriers on the road with bicycles and motorcycles who can guarantee prompt delivery of urgent items.

Dispatch riders in London had a reputation in the 1980s for being rough, tough, and crazy.

These macho riders were my heroes as a young teenager, and if I’d stayed in the U.K. I’d probably have become a dispatch rider myself. It was a rough-and-tumble life and they’d take chances at every opportunity to shave time from their deliveries. Once, riding behind a dispatcher on my Honda 250 as we sliced between two lanes of traffic, we came up against two small cars that were too close beside each other to allow room to pass. I think they were a Mini and an MG. The dispatcher, on his Yamaha XT 500 with its wide bars and slim everything else, didn’t even slow down but just popped a wheelie to clear the bars over the tops of the two cars. I pulled up behind, gob-smacked and totally impressed.

Another time, on a four-lane highway, I rode between two trucks that were driving alongside each other at probably 100 km/h. I was riding at probably 120 km/h. As I neared the front, they pulled closer toward each other and left barely any space between my handlebars and their huge wheels. That was maybe the dumbest thing I ever did, and I never did anything like it again. I learned the lucky way that lane-splitting is safest at low speed.

Splitting between lanes of traffic is dangerous if it’s done at speed, but filtering between slow or stopped vehicles is a safe practice.

Fifteen years later, I returned to live in the U.K. for another couple of years and commuted 80 kilometres every day in and out of London on a Suzuki GS550. There were still no rules around lane-splitting or filtering, but this time there was more police enforcement against yahoo riding. Also, I was older and wiser and imposed my own rules. I’d only ride between lanes of traffic that were either stopped or driving at a crawl, and I wouldn’t push right to the front at a red light if the leading driver hadn’t left space to let me in.

If there was no traffic, the commute into Camden Town would take 40 minutes each way. If there was traffic and I was on the bike, it would take 45 minutes at most. If I was in the car, it could take more than two hours. So I rode the bike in all weathers and really didn’t contribute to the city’s congestion, either on the road or when parked near my office. Many thousands of other motorcyclists did the same thing and still do. European cities encourage them.

In Europe, vehicles in the far left lane routinely stay to the left of that lane to allow motorcycles and scooters to filter through.

Never once in four combined years of riding – both novice and experienced – did I witness a collision between a motorcycle and a car caused by lane filtering. I’m sure it happens, but it’s not common enough to even register on an accident report. The truth is, a rider is a lot more vulnerable to being hit from behind when stuck in a lane of traffic than from being sideswiped when travelling between lanes. Zac made this clear on Monday. And if you don’t want to lane filter, you don’t have to. It’s your choice.

But no, it looks dangerous so our lawmakers are reluctant to allow it. My point is, it can be very dangerous indeed, as I proved when sandwiched by my own stupidity between two trucks at speed, but with some basic guidelines, it’s not dangerous at all. California, Utah, and even Hawaii have recognized this and provide their own guidelines to make their riders safer while speeding up traffic. Why can’t we?

34 COMMENTS

  1. Lane Filtering should be done with common sense, the states in Australia have variating road rules regarding Lane Filtering..
    Up to 30kph (about 18mph) in traffic moving no faster than 30kph (about 18mph) don’t Lane Filter between two moving trucks, no filtering between the kerb or parked vehicles in stopped or moving traffic. Use Advanced Stop Line where available.
    Lane Filter when it is safe to do so, again common sense. You have to be really switched on when riding in congested traffic, distracted drivers, non attentive drivers we’ve all seen them.

  2. Much like Climate Change Deniers, we will always have a certain percentage of people who ignore fact and logic and stick to an opinion that is backed up by neither. I suggest we ignore them and continue to push for laws to be changed. Actually, if you set aside those facts that show otherwise, the argument against seems to be solely a safety one… so, if you feel it isn’t safe, don’t do it. Those of us who ride take a calculated risk every time we get in the saddle. What harm will it do YOU, naysayer, if we who favour lane splitting/filtering are allowed to do it?

    • Well said Mr Stackhouse. I want the option to do it once I calculate the risk/benefit at the time. I probably won’t do it at every opportunity but I want the option.

    • I’m a climate change skeptic precisely because i looked at the facts, not just the propaganda from the bureaucrats and their corrupt science.

  3. A new study by the University of California Berkeley shows that motorcyclists who split lanes in heavy traffic are significantly less likely to be struck from behind by other motorists and are less likely to suffer head or torso injuries, the American Motorcyclist Association reports.
    – Lane-splitting is safe if done in traffic moving at 50 mph or less, and if motorcyclists do not exceed the speed of other vehicles by more than 15 mph
    – Compared to riders who were not splitting lanes, lane-splitting motorcyclists were markedly less likely to suffer head injury (9 percent vs. 17 percent), torso injury (19 percent vs. 29 percent) or fatal injury (1.2 percent vs. 3 percent)
    – Lane-splitting riders were significantly less likely to be rear-ended than non-lane-splitting riders (2.6 percent vs. 4.6 percent)
    Lane-splitting motorcyclists were more likely to be wearing a full-face helmet than other motorcyclists (81 percent vs. 67 percent)
    – Compared to other motorcyclists, lane-splitting riders were more often riding on weekdays and during commuting hours, were using better helmets and were traveling at slower speeds;
    The AMA formally endorses responsible lane splitting and will continue to assist groups and individuals working to bring legal lane splitting and/or filtering to their states.
    Personally I have done it in Europe and California without any close calls. We used our motorcycle in California to travel 60 miles and it took 1 hour. A 60 mile trip in our car took 3 hours.
    Legalize filtering as it is in California with fines for improper use and fines for cars that try to hinder motorcycles filtering and all drivers will tune into the benefits and allow filtering safely.

  4. This is just an opinion article. On this subject, like many others, everyone seems to have an opinion and it’s usually a strongly held opinion. Are we ALL to write and publish our opinion? Would that somehow change people’s minds? Would it make us feel better to have our opinion put out there? At the end of the day, we all have to choose how we are going to ride. Do it or don’t do it: lane splitting, helmet, gear, child passengers, etc, etc, etc. Frankly I don’t really care what anyone’s opinion is on this or other subjects, nor do I care if governments change their laws or not. I get very tired of seeing so many people pushing their opinions on these issues, especially pushing it as ‘the truth’, as if they have the inside track on ‘truth’. Ridiculous! I only care about my opinion. I will decide how I’m going to ride, thank you.

        • It is my understanding that nearly every country in the world (except for Canada and most of the U.S.) allows lane splitting because of necessity. There are simply too many people on the roads to NOT allow lane splitting. The UK, all of Asia, etc, have so much traffic that if everyone was to take up the space of a car in a lane the congestion would be unfathomable. The U.S. state with the most traffic (California) was the first to legalize lane splitting for good reason.

          With the world’s population only growing, and electric bicycles growing exponentially, it’s only a matter of time before we will have to either legalize lane splitting or find a way to force people off of the roads to relieve the growing road congestion.

    • There are major differences in the two types of opinions for cases like this. One opinion seeks to allow riders to have options and ride how they want, with the law to support them and the other just seeks to continue to restrict. Even if you don’t agree with lane filtering or splitting, the existence of a law to support it does NOT effect you in any shape or form so there should be NO reason to object to it.

      Therefore one opinion seeks to be inclusive and the other seeks to invalidate and restrict. Again to reiterate, just because you are allowed to do something doesn’t mean you have to. There are still riders in states and places where it is supported that don’t filter or split.

      Therefore an opinion on this matter that disagrees with the safety of lane filtering is absolutely moot if the topic is about the creation of a law to support the action.

      Trying to reduce conversations like this to, “lel just am opinion” is asinine.

  5. I agree with Willie. I Have been a rider for over 50 years and still ride.
    I never split lanes and never would.
    Its totally insane and should not be allowed.

  6. I would love the opportunity to be able to do this. But Nova Scotia drivers are among the most ignorant drivers I have ever come across. And I have driven in places where you drive on the left side of the road. Here they try and stop you from passing, even though they have no intention of driving the speed limit.
    I can see a lot of accidents from bikers getting crushed between cars as they try and make there way to the front of the line at an intersection…..
    It sure would be nice on a hot day to move between cars stuck in traffic………
    Let’s make it happen…..

    Rob

  7. Costa you are correct on all counts, but you may have alienated some of your cult like following. So how does it feel to swim in the deep end with inept swimmers?
    I took the “time” to read through the comments, humorous at best.

    • His arguments are purely anecdotal. I read your comment in the previous article re: this topic. Quite the cliché. Do you even ride?

  8. What a bunch of nervous Nancies on this site. FFS, you don’t have to do it if you think it’s unsafe.
    I can’t say I care much either way as I rarely commute on the bike, and can use the HOV lane now, if I do.
    But if I needed to commute into, say, Toronto or Mississauga every day again, you bet I’d be splitting lanes on the QEW/403 if allowed. Ontario drivers can’t possibly be any worse than LA drivers. At least our roads aren’t full of unlicensed illegal immigrants like down there. People would soon get used to bikes going between lines of cars.

  9. I agree, it’s not going to work here. We don’t have any enforcement of road rules and it’s a zoo out there. Until people are forced to accept the fact that the police are going to do something, were just road kill lane splitting. I grew up with it and it save time for a motorcycle.
    I sometime fear for myself using my own lane. People just don’t respect other road users anymore. A law/rule is only as good as the enforcement.

    • People aren’t smoking in cars with kids. People with kids now use child safety seats. Steep fines are reducing phone use while driving. People are wearing seat belts. All of these people say, “hey we did this back in the day, what’s the harm?” but change happened. If you don’t have skills to to filter/split, then you shouldn’t. You make your own choices. Just like my mom doesn’t use the highway. Know your limits. But in stop and go traffic, I don’t want to be rammed from behind. It’s statically based evidence that indicates it’s safer to be between two cars than in front of one. Your argument is purely anecdotal. Creating awareness is our only obstacle and with a public awareness blitz using social media and news outlets, this can be accomplished. More people will ride, and less congestion there will be. 4 bikers take the space of one car. Don’t count on enforcement. It’s the mindset that has to be changed via education and time.

  10. Filtering doesn’t really apply to where I live because you need lanes to do it but for a long time in the spring, there is long piles of sand leftover from winter between any lanes that I have to consciously avoid.

  11. I agree that it would take a long time for drivers to become accustomed to filtering. But why not allow it and start building awareness? Too bad we didn’t start this 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

    Reminds me of the “but we always did it this way” mentality.

  12. In my lifetime, we’ve developed a culture where smoking has become a taboo. Cyclist lobby groups have been very effective in achieving bike lanes and other laws that benefit cyclists, often to the detriment of other road users. Things can change, but the problem is that in North America, for most, riding is a recreation not a commuting strategy. There simply aren’t enough of us, and we are not a strong enough lobby to change the minds of the general public. Until then, even if it became legal, a major driver attitude change would be needed before it would become safe.

  13. Sorry, Mark, but I’m against introducing any kind of filtering/lane splitting regulations here in Canada. I do it regularly when I travel to places where it has been the standard for many years, and I feel safe doing it, and love it for its convenience. Drivers there are aware of it, and accustomed to it.

    Here in Canada, where even drivers with good driving habits are not accustomed to look for a bike coming up close, between lanes, it can only lead to an increase of two-vehicle incidents involving bikes. Never mind the frustrated drives stuck in traffic, who even after being told that the practice is acceptable, will try to close the door on oncoming bikes — and that will be common, at least initially.

    North America (except California) has been too long without this practice for it to be incorporated anywhere near smoothly. And who would foot the bill for the extensive awareness campaign needed to sensitise already distracted, disinterested, or completely disconnected drivers to look out for bikes sneaking between lanes? Heavy fines would have to be levied on drivers who disregard the motorcyclist’s privilege of filtering, much like it’s been done for cyclists, but that’s highly unlikely to happen. Nope. Not for Canada.

    • Totally disagree with you. We have a multicultural city where many of our immigrants come from countries where lane splitting/filtering are common. The cost of lost revenue from lengthy commutes greatly outweighs the cost of a public awareness campaign. With so many social media platforms, much of can be done for free.

      I would suggest that this initiative – in the North America’s 5 largest city (Toronto) – would possibly even encourage more riders, like it does in other parts of the world where congestion is a nightmare, changing the dynamic of traffic altogether.

      Subjectively and objectively, splitting/filtering is the way to go to not only ease congestion, but for those willing to do it, will increase their safety. Sitting in a lane in stop and go traffic is not where I want to be with the increase in distracted driving. No matter what you’re doing on a bike, if you want to survive, you cannot rely on cars to be aware of you, even without filtering/splitting.

      It’s no different from the pedestrian who thinks he/she can walk across the street during a green light while looking at their phone thinking that since it’s their right to cross, they won’t get hit by a car.

      • Saying lost revenue due to lengthy commutes will outweigh the cost of an awareness campaign suggests a majority of people are arriving to work late due to traffic, which isn’t the case. People are just hitting the road earlier. And the people who would benefit from filtering would only be a small percentage of the commuting population, and even then it would only be during part of the year. And if you
        are going to rely on social media to educate the population to look out for motorcycles, well, not much I can say to that.

        • Why else would people be late for work if it isn’t because of traffic? And when a train on the subway line shuts down, you’re telling me there isn’t lost revenue from decreased productivity? It’s happening more frequently and people lose their jobs when this occurs. Also, when people have to hit the road earlier and sit in traffic longer, quality of life is deteriorated. As for social media, I meant this as a substitute for traditional mediums; and fyi, social media has been the cause of the demise of the newspaper.

          • Quality of life is not the same as lost revenue. Two different things. As for newspapers: it wasn’t social media that caused its demise it, it was transfer of the medium from paper to digital, and the inability of print media to adapt quickly — again, two different things.

            • You’re splitting hairs. I’m aware that lost revenue and quality of life are mutually exclusive. Agreed, print to digital is the principal cause of the demise of print but digital news is 3x the cost of print editions, which deters people from subscribing. Free sources of news is greatly derived from links in Facebook and Twitter that channel you to all the news outlets. You can follow all the news outlets for free and anything sensational is bombarded in your face all day.

              According to your profile, you were the editor of Cycle Canada so not sure how you can deny the impact of social media considering all the motorcycle magazines are moving to digital and all have a social media presence. In fact, I only saw this article because of a tweet from Canada Moto Guide.

              I understand your points that people won’t be receptive and may box you in at first but it doesn’t mean people can’t unlearn this behaviour in time. Plus, nobody is making you filer or split.

              • “Plus, nobody is making you filer or split.” No, but they will make me pay for those who do and suffer the consequences of those incapable of dealing with that filtering.

                Filtering/lane splitting: good in places where it has been the norm for many years and is part of the driving culture.

                Filtering/lane splitting: Bad in countries where it is not standard practice, and where drivers can barely stay in their own lane, and don’t use mirrors or turn signals regularly, and exhibit poor situational awareness.

                And for the record, I am also a certified riding instructor, and have seen all too many instances of drivers neglecting to see motorcycles when they are in their proper lane, let alone riding between them.

                We’ll agree to disagree.

                • As a certified riding instructor, you’d know that the Rider Training Institute, Ontario’s largest riding and licensing school, is spearheading this statistics based initiative.

                  All the jurisdictions that filter/split had to start sometime with proper planning. It didn’t just spontaneously work out for them.

                  And seeing bikers getting hit by cars that are in their lane is exactly why we’re having this discussion. Maybe we have no business being there.

                  As for social media versus traditional news outlets. Share prices:

                  Torstar (est. 1892) – $.47
                  New York Times (est. 1851) – $39
                  Facebook (est. 2004) – $210
                  Twitter (est. 2006) – $36

                  Tell me it isn’t effective.

    • I agree. I would never do it if it becomes legal. Drivers in Ontario are way too distracted and selfish and would have no problem trying to squeeze you out of lane filtering. Too dangerous.

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