In case you haven’t noticed, motorcycle lane sharing is a really popular idea in the US right now. In the past decade, many US states have looked at the idea of legalizing filtering (moving between lines of stationary or slow-moving cars at a stop) or full-on lanesplitting (riding between moving vehicles at higher speeds).
Although many of those efforts have failed, others have seen success. In September, the state of Arizona legalized lane filtering by motorcycles, under specific rules. Before that, we saw Montana and Utah pass similar rules, which allow bikes between cars at slow speeds. In California, that state’s wink-and-ignore policy towards lane sharing has also finally been given official approval. Oregon’s legislators also approved a lane sharing bill, but that was nixed by the governor’s veto.
So what’s going on in Canada? With our own urban gridlock concerns, are we any closer to legalizing lanesplitting or filtering here? Or do we even want it?
Law enforcement perspective
Constable Sean Shapiro of the Toronto Police Service, a traffic officer and former rider on the motor squad, says he’s seen an increase in unsafe driving and riding practices of all kinds in recent years in the GTA, and that includes increased lanesplitting and filtering.
He says police are often not that concerned about riders who slow-speed filter to the front between a line of stopped cars, but if riders are blasting between lanes at highway speeds, that’s different. Shapiro points out that even in California, officials recommend lane-sharing riders don’t travel more than 10 mph faster than the traffic around them. Excessive speed differential is where riders really get into trouble, if they crash while lane sharing.
As far as the current situation in the GTA, although Shapiro says he’s seeing more lane sharing by motorcycles, he has no statistics about how that might relate to crashes. And although there is nothing in the lawbooks that explicitly prohibits lane sharing by name, Shapiro says officers can and will ticket under such charges as unsafe driving or stunting.
What if politicians re-opened the idea of a lane sharing pilot project? Toronto’s city leaders did look at such an idea back in 2018, although it ultimately went nowhere. If such a project did come into existence, Shapiro says police would enforce the new laws. However, he did express reservations about the idea of legalizing lane sharing. In other jurisdictions where filtering and lanesplitting are legal, he says motorists are much more used to sharing the road with motorcycles. That isn’t the case in Canada, where the seasonal nature of motorcycling means two-wheeled transportation is less popular.
“We’re still trying to get over the fact that people need to be reminded regularly that motorcycles exist at all,” says Shapiro. “I also think that other countries have a much higher bar for driver standards.”
With that in mind, he thinks it would require a steep learning curve for GTA motorists to accept and safely handle lane sharing, with basic techniques like the zipper merge and roundabout passage already not properly practiced. And while he concedes that filtering would reduce the danger from rear-end collisions at a stop, he also believes the risk is not worthwhile, particularly with distracted drivers everywhere.
The advocate’s perspective
The motorcycling community itself is often split on the issue of lane sharing. Some riders want it, others think it’s an insanely dangerous idea and want nothing to do it.
Dan Fritter, based in British Columbia, is one rider who wants lane sharing legalized, and he has been working towards that end for years, using social media and other resources to organize riders and lobby politicians. His best-known efforts are probably through the Lane Filter British Columbia project (find it on Facebook here), but he’s been involved with other provinces as well.
He acknowledges the same dangers that Constable Shapiro points out, but believes the safety benefits offered by lane sharing outweigh the dangers. He also believes lane sharing will actually increase awareness of motorcyclists.
“We all know there are a ton of distracted drivers; we see them daily. And those distracted drivers pose a significant threat to riders in heavy traffic, where we really need the people driving behind us to pay attention,” says Fritter. “Even a slow-speed rear-end collision can wreak catastrophic injuries on a rider. Moreover, lane filtering dramatically increases the visibility of riders—a fact that’s been borne out in European studies—and riders are safer on roads where drivers are more aware of motorcyclists and scooters.”
The key, says Fritter, is to keep speeds sensible, and to focus on filtering, not lanesplitting.
“Filtering generally refers to lane sharing with a low maximum permissible speed and/or a similarly low speed-differential law (wherein riders are limited to going marginally faster than other traffic). Lanesplitting typically is used to denote lane sharing without any speed constraints,” Fritter says. “Studies show that lane sharing at relatively lower speeds created the best improvement for rider safety, as it also naturally limited the speed differential between filtering riders and motorists. That’s why we’re pursuing a filtering model, wherein filtering motorcyclists would be limited to 30 kph, meaning the surrounding traffic would have to be going slower – or be stopped.”
Fritter says he’s dealt with multiple levels of government in British Columbia, including regional, provincial and Translink authorities, as well as coordinating with other similar efforts in Alberta and Ontario. He says discussion with the Alberta government seemed to show some province, but progress was slowed when COVID-19 became an issue.
As far as his perspective goes, motorcycle lane sharing isn’t being held back by its inherent dangers. He says the problem is that government insiders just aren’t motivated to consider the issue.
“The biggest hindrance, in my experience, are the significant levels of institutional inertia personified by provincial bureaucrats who, simply put, have no incentive to even entertain the prospect,” he says. “They’re probably overworked already, and when something like a lane filtering proposal crosses their desk, it no doubt just looks like a hell of a lot of (potentially politically risky) work they don’t need or want. So as an advocate, you’re kinda stuck either trying to pressure an elected MP or Minister to champion the cause and ask the Ministry of Transport to look into how to enact it, or a municipality to make some formal requests for a roadgoing trial, in order to overpower the internal stonewalls that are otherwise keeping progress at bay.”
Adding to that, Fritter says Canadian politicians have no appetite to break new ground and take a risk: “The number of times legislators have told me ‘just wait until enough states legalize it, and it’ll happen here’ is downright depressing.”
The Non-profit perspective?
What about the view from the Canadian Motorcycle Association? As the FIM affiliate in Canada, issues that relate to motorcyclists’ interests and safety concerns would fall under their purview. The last time CMG looked at this issue, we noted the CMA had polled its members about lane sharing in 2019. Here’s the result, as per the CMA’s website at that time:
“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 …”
At this point, that statement seems to have disappeared off the CMA website. A call to the organization had not been returned at the time of publication, and as for Fritter, he says he’s never heard from the CMA in his years of advocacy.
The Motorcyclists Confederation of Canada, an industry-organized non-profit, does have a statement about lane sharing on its website, seen here. Note the following quote:
What is the MCC’s position on lane splitting and lane filtering?
The Motorcyclists Confederation of Canada (MCC) has not taken an official position on the issue of lane splitting and lane filtering in Canada. It continues to be a contentious and often confusing issue, with legitimate arguments on both sides. MCC encourages riders to obey the traffic laws wherever you ride. Even the written laws can sometimes be confusing.
So, if lane sharing is going to become a thing in Canada, it appears neither the MCC nor the CMA is going to push for it at that point.
At this point, it seems most of the Canadian establishment, whether lawmakers, law enforcement or even the organizations representing motorcyclists aren’t keen to push for legal lane sharing. But motorcyclists themselves? Some riders are very much in favour of the idea. Whether their actions will result in a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction march towards legalization remains to be seen. On one hand, as Canada is one of very few countries in the world where lane sharing isn’t legalized in at least some jurisdictions, the idea seems inevitable as gridlock worsens. On the other—if the right people don’t ask for it, it just won’t happen.