It’s one step back in the battle for legalized lane sharing: Although Virginian politicians considered loosening the restrictions on motorcycles earlier this year, it seems the bill has died in committee, and the state will not allow the practice.
It’s too bad, but it’s the normal state of affairs lately. Plenty of state legislators are looking at legalizing some form of lane sharing, but it’s still difficult to get them to approve the idea.
An idea with momentum
For years, California was known as the only jurisdiction in the US and Canada that allowed lane sharing. Motorcycles freely rode between cars on the street. They’d filter forward at stops, between slowly moving or stopped cars. They’d even lanesplit between lines of traffic on the highway. It wasn’t encouraged, but there was no law against it.
It sounded like a crazy idea to the rest of the US and Canada, but after some dithering, California law officially declared lane sharing (aka “lane splitting” in Californiaspeak) as legal in 2016, settling the issue.
At the same time, the rest of the US seemed to start catching on to the idea as well. After years of no real movement on the issue (some legislators and lobbyists were far more worried about the pressing matter of helmet laws), the past decade has seen many lawmakers examine the subject. Utah actually legalized lane sharing in 2019. It’s more restrictive than California’s rules, but it’s an improvement over the old rules (basically, riders are now allowed to filter forward between cars at stops, at low speeds). Hawaii also legalized an extremely limited form of lane sharing in 2018. There, riders can only filter forward on the shoulder under a narrow set of rules, but still—it’s an improvement.
Along with those steps, there have also been attempts in the states of Connecticut, Texas, Washington, and Montana. In Canada, the city of Toronto (third-largest in North America) also examined the subject but (predictably) ran into too much red tape to make any real moves.
Most recently, two states had examined the issue in 2020: Arizona, and Virginia. Arizona’s HB 2285 seems to still be waiting to work its way through the state political system. As for Virginia, it appears HB 1236 is dead in committee.
Why should we want lane sharing?
Why should American riders care about the legal status of lane sharing? Here’s why: It’s a common-sense practice that riders use all over the world that can keep us safer, if practised correctly. And it’s good for everyone, not just motorcyclists. It’s been proven to reduce traffic congestion for everyone, not just motorcyclists (see this Belgian study from 2011 for more details).
So, why wouldn’t everyone be in favour?
I’ve argued over lane sharing in columns and articles for years now, and I’ve heard the same arguments over and over again: the antis say lane sharing is too dangerous. Even if it works elsewhere, it would never work in North America, where drivers are allegedly too distracted or aggressive. Because we’ve never had lane sharing before, it would never work now, the naysayers claim.
And yet, when you look at statistics and real-life experience, the arguments against lane sharing always fall apart.
First off, the claim that lane sharing is inherently dangerous. It would be silly to say that all forms of lane sharing at any speed, even legal highway speed or above, are as safe as riding in a non-shared lane. However, this 2015 study from UC Berkeley found that, if done at sensible speeds, lane sharing is “relatively 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.” So, it sounds as if riders in California are lane sharing, and managing to avoid running into cars.
Most of the states looking at lane sharing aren’t looking at lanesplitting at highway speeds anyway. They’re just looking at allowing motorcycles to filter ahead at stops—bikes would be allowed to travel between stopped or slowly-moving cars to the front of the line at a traffic light or other stoppage. This would not only eliminate the possibility of high-speed sideswiping, it would also remove the possibility of stopped riders being struck from behind as they wait for traffic. Rear-end collisions are a significant percentage of serious motorcycle accidents and fatalities, and allowing filtering would cut that number down.
And, let’s use some common sense. If lane sharing was so dangerous, do you really think it would be common practice in Europe? Maybe in everything-goes developing countries, but in Europe’s tightly-controlled traffic system, lane sharing is normal. If they don’t think it’s inherently suicidal, why should we?
Second, the claim that “it just won’t work here.” Confronted with the facts, the naysayers always go on to say “Who cares what works in California, or the UK, or Tokyo? If lane sharing was legalized here, now, motorists would be running over bikers all the time, because they just don’t expect to see them.”
Luckily for us, we actually have a case sample to study, and see if this is true. In 2019, the state of Utah allowed limited lane sharing, having never had the practice legalized before. Was there widespread mayhem as a result? After talking to law enforcement personnel in Utah, I can tell you this isn’t the case. There were some minor hiccups (see below), but things haven’t gotten out of control.
The reality is that when you propose lane sharing legalization, some of the loudest critics are motorcyclists themselves. Many riders just think it’s too dangerous, and cannot be convinced otherwise. To them, I say, that’s fine—nobody wants to make you start lanesplitting or filtering. But for the rest of us, we should have a choice, especially when the benefits are considered.
How can we make it happen?
Right now, you’re not going to see lawmakers talk about anything other than COVID-19. But in a few weeks or months, we’ll presumably return to some sort of normalcy, and that’s when it’s time to get busy. First off, as a rider, you need to pressure your local state politicians (or provincial leaders, if you’re in Canada). Then, you need to pressure ABATE, the AMA, or whatever riders’ representative organization you’re a member of. Tell them to get cracking on this issue. And be ready for lots of opposition, from cagers and maybe even from other riders.
This change won’t happen overnight, as we’ve seen already in the US. Many state politicians have already nixed the idea, but the fact they’ve even considered it shows momentum is finally building. And if lane sharing is OK’d, it might see some sort of graduated roll-out (that might be the safest way to introduce the idea to car drivers). But if California can get off its butt and officially legalize the practice, and then see Utah and Hawaii kinda-sorta follow, surely we can get more of North America on board with lane sharing.