COMMUTING SAFETY
Part Four

 

Lane-splitting

One of the things that makes a bike such a practical vehicle for commuting is its ability to lane-split, or pass between traffic lanes. It saves you from being stuck in endless queues of rush-hour traffic like other vehicles, reduces your travelling time, and allows you to quickly navigate around traffic jams caused by accidents or inoperative traffic lights. Unfortunately it comes at a price: it’s an extremely dangerous practice.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it – it just means you need to know the risks and be extremely careful. If you follow a few basic guidelines, you can lane-split reasonably safely and still enjoy the advantages of a bike. The most important of these is that you have to be vigilant all the time. You have to be constantly aware of the traffic around and behind you, and three or four cars ahead of you. Do the math: two cars behind you, one more on either side of you and two lanes of three cars each ahead of you – that’s 10 cars you have to keep track of simultaneously!

With any of the red cars in the image above likely to do something that can endanger you at any time, it goes without saying that speeding is not something you want to do when lane-splitting. Based on an average reaction time of 0,3 seconds, at 30km/h you will travel 3m before you even begin to react to a threat. At 50km/h you will travel 4,5m and at 80km/h you will travel more than 7m. And remember, this excludes the distance your bike takes to come to a stop once you started braking.

In lane-splitting it’s not speed that kills, it’s differential speed (the speed difference between you and the surrounding traffic). My own rule is to limit my differential speed to around 35-40km/h, but how fast you want to go will depend on a number of factors: your age (older people react slower than younger people), the weight of your bike, whether or not you have ABS, and whether or not you have an escape route in case something goes wrong. But whatever speed you decide on, make sure you allow yourself sufficient space and time to react to a car suddenly swerving or stopping in front of you.

If you’re wondering what I mean by an ‘escape route’, I simply mean somewhere else you can go if there’s an obstruction in your way. For example, if you’re lane-splitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic and the car directly in front of you suddenly changes lanes, where will you go to avoid him? In the image above, the bike has two options. Keep a possible escape route in mind all the time, because you often don’t have time to look for one when the smelly stuff hits the whirly thingie. And if there’s no possible escape, reduce your speed. I’ve seen bikes lane-splitting at insane speeds, and while I admire their confidence in their reflexes, I have to wonder if they are really considering the possibility that something might go wrong.

Unless you’re on a freeway (and in South Africa, sometimes even there), pedestrians are a constant hazard. If these good people would confine themselves to the designated crossings (or at least apply some common sense to their pedestrian progress), they would be of no concern to us, but unfortunately they don’t. Instead they appear to take some perverted satisfaction from hiding behind tall vehicles and jumping out when we are too close to avoid them. The moral of the story is to always take care when you’re passing tall vehicles like trucks, minibuses and SUVs – they can easily conceal pedestrians.


Trucks are the bane of our lives – They're wide, they're hard to see past, they generate a lot of turbulence, and they're slow. Two of them is bad news squared. If you’re approaching two large trucks driving abreast, don’t go between them. It takes longer to pass a truck than a car, simply because there is more vehicle pass. Bear in mind that the driver’s visibility is much more restricted than that of a car driver, and that it’s likely that he doesn’t even know you’re there. Trucks are also harder to manoeuvre than cars – if the truck starts drifting towards you the driver is possibly not going to do much to prevent it. If this happens while there’s another truck on your other side, you could be in big trouble: you can brake or accelerate, but either way it’s going to take valuable seconds for you to get out from between them.

Since trucks rarely travel at the exact same speed, the best option is to wait until one has passed the other – that way you can deal with one truck at a time. I only ever consider splitting between two trucks when they are stationary, and then there are two rules that I follow: I make sure there is enough room for me to pass between the trucks before I go in, and I make sure they won’t pull off with me still between them. Trucks are not a biker’s friend; the best thing to do is get past them as quickly and as safely as possible.

If you are commuting on a highway, it is easy to succumb to the lure of speed. The problem is that your ability to accelerate quicker than cars can, could get you in trouble. Let’s say you’ve sped up in a traffic-free part of the road and suddenly you see the traffic in front of you is stationary. Let’s also say that one lane is backed up more than the other, leaving an open lane on one side. The thing to remember in this situation is that it is likely that at least one of the cars in the filled-up lane is going to become impatient and change into the open lane. If you are going at 120km/h and an almost-stationary car suddenly pulls out into your lane a few metres ahead, you’d better have either an escape route or a will ready. Rather approach the backup on the far side of the open lane, so that when this happens you will have left enough space for the car to move into without becoming a threat to you.

Always remember you’re probably not the only biker who is lane-splitting on that particular stretch of road. Be on the lookout for others and be courteous towards them. Don’t pull out of a lane into the ‘bike lane’ without checking your mirrors – there might be another bike already there and moving faster than you are. Don’t forget that you are as much a danger to another bike as a car is. When you’re splitting, allow faster bikes to pass by pulling into the traffic lane. I usually signal before I do it, for two reasons: so that the bike behind me knows I’m aware of him, and to show him in which direction I intend to yield. By the same token, be patient with a slower bike in front of you – he might be so busy concentrating on the traffic that he simply doesn’t notice you. Don’t ride too close while you’re waiting for him to yield, because if something goes wrong you’ll be too close to stop in time. And please thank him when you go past – it’s not just good manners but also encourages him to let you through again next time.

There’s been much debate over whether or not lane-splitting is legal. As far as I can tell, it is not expressly allowed, but it also seems that the authorities are turning a blind eye to the practice – as well they might, since it does help to alleviate congestion. Legal or not, in almost 30 years of biking, I have never been pulled over for lane-splitting – it seems to be OK to do it. The most important thing about lane-splitting is that you should be smart about – how often have you been in a car and seen a biker do something really stupid? And then you think to yourself: “There goes an accident looking for a place to happen.” The  thing is to try an ensure you're not such an accident-in-waiting.

Lane-splitting may well be the single most dangerous thing you’ll ever do on a bike, and if you’re in doubt rather don’t do it. But if you do decide to lane-split, do it properly, intelligently and as safely as possible – or as sure as God made little green apples, you’ll suffer the consequences.

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© Dries van der Walt, 2008. Click on 'About' to see copyright information.

 
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