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
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
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.