They call me Lane Splitter: Why filtering is a good thing, except (maybe) in the United States

I’m pretty green to the motorcycling community, the internet face of it especially. But what I’m quickly learning is that, like every community, it has its own set of mores and accepted truths. And it has its own issues that get members of the community yelling over one another, proving that old theory that the less important something is the more passionately and personally it will be argued. One of the most contentious of those issues, it seems, is lane splitting – or, as it is known in the United Kingdom: “filtering.”
It is also sometimes referred to as “lane sharing” or “white lining.” By whatever name you choose, it is, of course, the act of driving one’s motorcycle between two cars. There are any number of internet discussions on its merit, or lack thereof; some people have even set up blogs solely dedicated to discussing this one aspect of motorcycling. The arguments get very heated very quickly and it usually doesn’t take much more than three comments before the whole thing degrades into insults and internet shit-talking (i.e., making claims, assertions or threats that the person would never make nor act upon were he or she not speaking from the anonymous safety of a far-away computer).
The arguments for and against filtering can often be rooted in the loose soil of personal feelings, but by and large I am in favour of it, assuming certain conditions. But I can also see how it might not be such a great idea in the United States.

Here’s my take:

Visit London, my friends. Hop on the Tube and travel to King’s Cross Station, then park yourself at the spot where York Way, Caledonia Road, Pentonville Road, Euston Road, Grays Inn Road and Birkenhead Street all more or less intersect at once. Or go to just about any other intersection in London. Or go to just about any intersection in any major European city. Once you have found your intersection of choice, stand there for 10 minutes and watch the traffic go by.
You will quickly notice dozens upon dozens of motorcycles, scooters and bicycles filtering through the cars. The argument for getting out of one’s car and onto such a mode of transportation becomes pretty clear. It is an efficient way of manoeuvring through the crowded city scene. It saves time and space, and thereby reduces stress and contributes to an overall better living environment.

I frequently travel through the Cardiff area on bicycle, and most certainly filtering is standard operating procedure in such a situation. Filtering just makes sense, and I don’t think it’s worth investing a great deal of time worrying whether my ability to get places quickly makes other people jealous.

That’s frequently part of the arguments that I’ll see against filtering: that cutting in line (or “jumping the queue,” as they say in the UK) will make car drivers upset. That’s silly. Perhaps the quality of my jacket will also make them jealous, or my sexy physique, or my general coolness; whether another person has a child-like sense of entitlement can’t really be a legitimate concern when motoring.

Almost always this criticism, and, indeed all anti-filtering criticism, comes from my fellow Americans. Many of them argue with a vitriol that makes you think they suffered some kind of life trauma – that perhaps they were bullied by a lane splitter at some point and thereafter swore an oath of vengeance. Very, very confusingly, this is the same country where many people argue vehemently against helmet laws.

I don’t get that. It seems to me there’s a breakdown in the libertarian philosophy. Freedom is freedom. If you think you should have the freedom to risk splattering your un-helmeted skull all over the road, why would you not also demand the freedom to participate in the “dangerous” activity of not being stuck in traffic?

But, all that said, I can think of one reason why filtering might not be a great idea in the United States. Strangely, it’s a reason I’ve not seen argued by any of filtering’s opponents.

If you go back to that European intersection, you’ll see lots of motorcyclists happily moving along and not clogging up the roads, but you’ll notice that many, if not most, are on bikes lower than 250 cc. You’ll notice, too, that cruisers (i.e. Harley-type bikes, to anyone who doesn’t know a lot about motorcycles) are almost entirely absent. Those European motorcyclists are generally using narrower, more manoeuvrable bikes.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, according to an article I read recently, more than 50 percent of riders are on “feet-forward” bikes like cruisers and tourers. A Honda CBR250 – a “sport” bike – is 27 inches wide, whereas a Honda Fury – a cruiser – is 36 inches wide. Add the bags and massive handlebars that are so commonly seen on the big American bikes and it’s not hard to imagine that many US riders would need a gap of almost 5 feet to safely filter between two cars. Keep in mind, too, that these kind of bikes are not renown for their cornering.

So, because so many Americans choose to ride bikes that are ill-suited to filtering one might argue it’s a good idea to prevent any of them from even trying.

I disagree with this line of thinking and feel it’s a good practice when – like any aspect of motorcycling – it is done intelligently. Filtering is legal in California and the California Highway Patrol even offers a guide on how to do it safely. I agree with all of these guidelines, but I think perhaps the maximum speed at which one can filter should be set at 30 mph.

If done intelligently and respectfully, I think filtering can be a great asset toward assuring everyone gets to where they want to go with the least amount of stress. Car drivers would get used to it after a time and it might even help to make motorcycling more appealing, which, I think can only help motorcyclists in the long run.


(My apologies for completely running over my self-imposed limit of 500 words in this post. I thought it best to just put all my thoughts down at once, rather than breaking them into multiple posts.)