Paul Charman: Lane-splitting - a passing irritation

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It can annoy motorists and looks dangerous but motorcycle lane-splitting falls into a grey area under the law.
Motorcyclists lane splitting in Bangkok.
Motorcyclists lane splitting in Bangkok.

How about those brazen motorcycle riders who force pathways between lines of motorway traffic at rush hour?

They're at it every day in Auckland, squeezing their bikes along the long narrow canyons between the cars.

They get ahead of the traffic by invading a linear world of wing-mirrors, exhaust smoke and sullen-faced drivers.

Using this space - a practice known as "lane-splitting" - is actaully not as dangerous as it looks, but neither is it as safe as bikers would like to pretend.

What if a car were to swerve unexpectedly into this narrow gap used by one of the bikers?

Maybe some lane splitters secretly picture themselves as the invincible knights of old, or perhaps immortal messengers of the gods . . .

Their extraordinary mobility seems to make them smug, possibly intoxicated.

At the rate some of travel, they'll be parked up and sipping coffee at work stations, while we're still looking for the off-ramp.

Behind the big helmets, they're probably laughing all the way to their free council parking areas.

Yes, Auckland Council provides free bike parking spaces for these hoons.

Though, of course, free motorbike parking mainly assists riders of the saner sort.

But "sane" doesn't spring to mind when considering those who "lane-split" at speed.

Their bad habits should not be confused with "filtering", however.

Filtering, is when a motorcyclist moves past stationary lines of traffic and apparently it's usually legal, if done sensibly and safely.

Lane-splitting, at least the reckless sort I often witness, can get a rider into big trouble with the traffic cops.

I occasionally ride a small motorcycle from the North Shore to Auckland's CBD.

Yes I filter, but - probably because my bike isn't powerful enough - never lane-split.

Sometimes I too am passed by the lane-splitters, roaring by on their big powerful bikes.

But the obvious question, is can it be legal?

"Sometimes yes, sometimes no," says the ACC senior injury prevention manager (motorcycles), Carey Griffiths.

"Both filtering and lane splitting are mainly about common sense, though some aspects can also be illegal.

"Above all, riders should get some training to avoid bad habits sure to get them into trouble one day."

Carey has ridden bikes for 30 years with the Police, retiring from the force as a senior manager.

He's spent about a decade in road safety, including a year with NZTA as a regional manager with the national portfolio of motorcycle safety.

"Lane splitting is one of those vexed issues," he admits.

"Not strictly lawful, but folks will do it anyway.

"I distinguish between that act (moving between moving cars) and filtering (moving to the front of a stationary queue). Those of us who ride know that riding a bike is not like driving half a car.

"Stop-start traffic on a bike is very tiring - on the rider's clutch hand and on the engines of air-cooled bikes in particular - and you are at risk of being rear ended.

"One example used when talking with car drivers is 'would you sit on a chair at the back of a motorway queue and hope the guy coming up behind you isn't on his cell phone?'"

"Similarly, creating your own lane between cars and blasting up the middle at speed is not particularly safe, nor sensible.

Police, and particularly the motorcycle cops, tend to take a pragmatic view of riders lane-splitting.

"It's not lawful in that there's no law allowing it, and some lane-splitting behaviours, such as undertaking a moving vehicle in its own lane are illegal.

"In some instances, someone blasting at high speed between cars can be done for careless or dangerous driving - all dependant on the circumstances.

"There's no black and white here, but essentially it comes down to that rarest of commodities, common sense."

Without limiting Police's ability to enforce the law as they see fit, Mr Griffiths says generally the bike cops will be looking at:

• The need to lane-split in the first place (if traffic is moving freely, someone creating their own extra lane is an unnecessary hazard)

• The speed differential in the circumstances (you are likely to be pulled over if you are passing traffic travelling at 50 ks at 70 ks plus)

• Overall conditions (if it's bucketing down the risk goes up)

• Rider behaviour: weaving in and out at speed, not indicating and cutting off cars tend to draw the ire of other motorists.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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