Some Lessons Learned from Failing to Pass Lane-Sharing in Oregon

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At the end of Oregon’s failure to pass a lane-sharing law, we asked those behind the effort to share their tips and commentary about the matter, so that those in other states could benefit from their successes, and learn from their failures. -JB

Thanks to Asphalt & Rubber‘s coverage earlier this year, readers are probably aware that Oregon’s Senate Bill 574 would have legalized a limited form of motorcycle lane filtering in the state. The bill

  • received a “Do Pass” recommendation from the Joint Committee on Transportation
  • passed full Senate and House floor votes, with 3-to-1 bipartisan majorities
  • had 17 sponsors, with a nearly even split of Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, from rural, urban, and suburban districts
  • received written support from over 600 Oregon motorcyclists
  • was endorsed by many Oregon businesses and organizations

Senate Bill 574 (SB574) was one of the most widely supported bills in the 2021 legislative session, a vivid illustration of elected officials from both major parties working together to support Oregon’s riders.

Governor Kate Brown vetoed the bill on May 26th, citing numerous concerns, including noncompliance and enforcement.

Commenting on the veto, Senator Michael Dembrow, Chief Sponsor of the bill, wrote “the Governor obviously has the responsibility of acting to promote public safety, and I generally agree with her actions towards that end. This time I think she’s making a mistake.”

At the time of writing, the citizens and organizations behind SB574 – including Lane Share Oregon, BikePAC of Oregon, and the Sang-Froid Riding Club – have wrapped up their work for the legislative session.

The bill did not become law this year, but we are already looking ahead to the next full legislative session in 2023.

Lane sharing is legal in several U.S. states – California, Utah, and Montana – and is practiced in other states and most other countries in the world.

Asphalt & Rubber asked us to put together some lessons learned and recommendations for other teams trying to legalize lane sharing in their state.

Bear in mind you are getting advice from a group that, while enjoying multiple successes, has yet to get a lane-sharing bill over the finish line.

But do not forget Mr. Honda’s words: “When you fail, you also learn how not to fail.”

Something vs. Nothing

When crafting your lane sharing bill with your legislative sponsors, you must make some difficult decisions.

What, if any, are the limitations of your bill? Is this only for city streets? Only for freeways? Both? Are there speed restrictions? Weather restrictions? Does the bill have a sunset clause?

You will also be grappling with a perennial question in politics: is it better to have half a loaf, or no loaf at all? Bear in mind it is often easier to ask for less than it is for more; borrowing $10 from a friend is easier than borrowing $10,000.

SB574 was criticized by some riders as “too watered down to be meaningful”, but in the eyes of the Governor, and the people who opposed it, it was far too radical.

Keep It Simple

Condense your message into several simple points that you can communicate to people in less than a minute.

We deliberately built a three-plank platform, and led every discussion with it: “You should support Senate Bill 574 for three reasons. First, it will benefit the environment. Second, it will help reduce traffic congestion. Third, and most importantly, it will improve rider safety.”

Do Not Worry About Why

Different people supported SB574 for different reasons. What matters is that they support the bill, not why. Some people support lane sharing to promote the environmental benefits of motorcycles.

Others endorse it because lane sharing means more efficient use of existing infrastructure. Some support it because it means fewer rules governing citizens’ lives.

Everyone cares about improving rider safety, though many remain unconvinced about the safety benefits of lane sharing.

When advocates are discussing lane sharing with people, they should listen and learn what personally matters to each individual person.

The goal is to unite supporters around the bill itself, not the reasons they support the bill. A large coalition with a wide variety of motivations is stronger than a narrow interest group.

Do Not Get Hung Up on Names

Avoid getting sucked into discussions about whether your bill is about “lane sharing”, “lane splitting”, “filtering”, or other terms.

Those discussions only take time away from discussing what really matters: the bill.

During discussions about SB574, if terminology questions came up, we had a simple response:

“You can refer to this any way you want; lane sharing, lane splitting, lane filtering, whatever you’d like. What really matters is what is defined in the bill: motorcyclists can move safely between stopped or slow-moving traffic in lanes traveling in the same direction, on roads with posted speeds of 50 mph or higher. Riders cannot exceed the speed of traffic by more than 10 mph, merging with the traffic flow if traffic speed exceeds 20 mph.”

Numbers Matter

Legislators listen to the constituents of their district. The more constituents legislators hear from, the better.

Some legislators who initially opposed SB574 ended up voting for the bill, because they heard from large numbers of constituents.

Find a way to reach out to riders in as many districts as possible, and help them get in touch with their legislators.

Prepare for a Long Fight

Assume that it will take three tries to pass your bill. Depending on how you count, Oregon’s team behind SB574 has been working on lane-sharing bills for at least four legislative sessions (8 years; Oregon’s legislature meets only every-other-year).

Every year we ‘get a little further’, but given Governor Brown’s veto, there is clearly still work to do.

As a corollary, begin working on the hard problems — e.g. educating groups opposed to the bill – immediately, since the tough problems often take the longest to solve.

Do Not Neglect the State Agencies

Solid support for SB574 among Oregon’s senators and representatives did not prevent Governor Brown from vetoing the bill.

Setting aside the Governor’s official explanation for why she vetoed the bill, state agencies like the Oregon State Police and the Oregon Department of Transportation have opposed the bill, both formally and informally, for at least the last six years.

Because these groups are not directly accountable to citizens or the legislative branch, they can safely ignore the will of the people and their representatives.

State agencies also have fairly easy access to the governor and her policymakers, and they are invested in maintaining the status quo. Overcoming the bureaucratic inertia in these large agencies is very difficult, but you need to try.

Problems are Usually Simpler than You Think

If a business lobbying group estimates your bill will cost them hundreds of thousands in lawsuits and legal fees, they will think nothing of writing checks to people and organizations who can stop the bill.

This is not a ‘shadowy cabal’ worthy of a conspiracy theory, it is just businesses protecting their interests with a checkbook.

Most businesses, like state agencies, do not want the status quo disrupted. Any change to it means risk, and possible loss of revenue.

The Oregon Trucking Association, for example, lobbied hard against SB574, fearing lawsuits from riders.

Educate Fellow Riders

Know that many U.S. riders do not support lane sharing. Part of your job is to educate the riding community about lane sharing’s benefits.

Also remind them, often, that lane sharing is optional. If a rider is not comfortable lane sharing, they do not have to lane share. You’ll be surprised at how many riders forget that fact.

Have Fun

Politics can be challenging and frustrating, but it can also be fun and meaningful. Celebrate your victories, and learn from your defeats.

Thanks to Jonas Acres, Ned Thanhouser, and Kirk Slack for their feedback on this article.