New road rules: when can motorcyclists beat the traffic?

Stuck in a traffic jam. Shaheer Shahid/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Motorcyclists are about to get a green light to “filter” through traffic on New South Wales roads. But what does that mean, for them and others sharing the road? And what are the rules for motorcycles weaving through traffic across the rest of Australia?

What’s changing from July 1?

In an Australian first, from July 1, 2014, motorcyclists in NSW will be able to legally lane filter through stopped and congested traffic. This will bring NSW closer to Asian and European cities, where motorcycles and scooters are treated as vital elements of a balanced road transport system.

The NSW changes will likely prompt significant revision of the Australian Road Rules relating to driving in marked lanes or lines of traffic.

Currently, no other Australian jurisdictions permits lane filtering by motorcyclists. But there are already calls for change in Victoria.

What is lane filtering?

Lane filtering is an effective method for dealing with some aspects of traffic congestion. It refers to a scooter rider or motorcyclist moving in the same direction between the lanes of stopped or slow moving vehicles.

It has been a common, albeit illegal, practice for decades by riders of motorcycles. It is also regularly employed by police motorcyclists and motorcycle paramedics as an effective technique for moving quickly in congested traffic conditions.

The Australian Road Rule 141 allows lane filtering by bicycle riders, but only along the left side of vehicles provided the vehicle being overtaken is not turning left.

There are scant reports of any riders being involved in a crash, or even being booked. This is as might be expected, as lane filtering is a low speed manoeuvre.

A trial in Sydney’s central business district last year showed many benefits from permitting lane filtering, and very few negatives.

What does when “safe to do so” mean?

The set of conditions to be imposed by NSW authorities for lane filtering only “when it is safe to do so” reflects a common sense approach. These include:

  • not doing filtering between lanes in school zones;
  • only doing so at speeds less than 30 km/h;
  • only full licensed riders (not L- or P-plater riders) will be permitted;
  • and not do it along the kerbside or gutter.

Add to that some common sense, which experienced motorcycle riders know they need to do, including to:

  • Take responsibility for their own safety (because a crash doesn’t hurt any less when it’s not the rider’s fault);
  • “Scan – Anticipate – Respond” to actively avoid situations that can lead to a near-miss or a crash;
  • And always wear protective clothing (just in case someone makes a mistake).

The new law is supported by most riders who already “split the lanes” to filter to the front of intersections, or to pass stopped or slow moving vehicles.

Experienced motorcycle commuters know that most car drivers make space for them when they see riders coming forward between the lanes.

But different forms of road transportation (such as driving cars, trucks, motorcycling, cycling) do require different cognitive skills for safe and efficient mobility.

For those drivers who are not in the habit of monitoring the traffic around them and who may not be fully situationally aware, there will be a need for public education to ensure that they know what to expect.

Getting traffic flowing

Despite the fact that that lane filtering will be a permissible, legal activity in NSW very soon – and other states and territories may follow suit – there will be probably be a few car drivers who will still open their door as the motorcycle approaches them in traffic, or attempt to drag-race motorbikes from traffic lights.

Why? Probably just poor anger management skills and a misplaced sense of territoriality and “road ownership”.

Luckily, experienced motorcyclists can use the benefits of their machines to easily manoeuvre away from such aggressive drivers.

The new rules should mean drivers and riders alike experience smoother traffic flows on NSW roads.

Over time, we would predict that many more driver-only commuters in cars will see motorcyclists and scooters filter past them while stuck in slow-moving traffic – and realise that they too could reduce their travel time and costs by switching over to a modern scooter or motorcycle.

This article was co-authored with David Tynan, secretary and treasurer of the Survive The Ride Association of NSW, a motorcycle safety and advocacy organisation.

Correction: A sentence of this article about bicycles and lane filtering was corrected and updated on Sunday March 30, thanks to reader comments from Felix Acker, Tasio Sclavenitis and Riddley Walker.