How To Overtake Safely

Whilst you are on the wrong side of an ordinary two-way road such as I deal with first, you are taking many additional risks. If you have, or cause, any accident out there, you will almost certainly be held entirely to blame. Therefore, before moving to overtake, you must be sure of everyone's safety.

Part of this must include checking intelligently in your mirrors. You must begin your right flashing indicator signal before pulling out. When you go, keep it flashing up to the stage you begin moving back in after the overtake. Then cancel it. Although you have taken care no-one will be endangered by your overtake, the signal is still essential; it may warn someone you failed to notice; it confirms what you are doing, both to everyone else around, and to anyone arriving on the scene whilst you are in progress. A left flashing indicator as you start to move in is hardly ever necessary. The way you are pointing the car should Itself tell people what you are doing. I would only add the signal, so as to confirm what was happening if I had to move back in more sharply than expected.

When Not To Overtake

The Highway Code specifies places which you should not overtake at (or when approaching); learn them by heart.

It also wisely says “IF IN DOUBT - DO NOT OVERTAKE”.

The general rule is that you must not overtake unless you are certain that the road is clear, and that there will be a gap for you in your stream - into which you can return without hindrance.

At no stage should an oncoming driver have to slow down or brake because of you. For someone to have to brake hard could be dangerous. A situation where someone coming was forced to swerve out of your way would be even more so.

Nevertheless, if someone is overtaking towards you, ease off your accelerator until you can see that they will be back on their own side well before you arrive. It helps no-one if you bash on and risk lives all round.

How To Overtake

To overtake safely, you should be accelerating to at least 15-20 m.p.h. faster than the vehicle you are passing. Sometimes, with care, you can put on most of this higher speed before you even move out; a more advanced driver will use an acquired sense of timing to do this instinctively, both so that he or she can make 100% safe use of a shorter gap in oncoming traffic than a less experienced driver might do, and so that the least possible time will be spent exposed to danger, on the wrong side of the road.

The more quickly you can complete your overtake, the better - provided there is no likelihood of the driver you are passing pulling out on you (for example to get past a cyclist who has been hidden from your view). Beware, however, of too large a difference between your speeds just as you begin to pass. Always ask yourself: “If that vehicle does pull out just as I'm coming up, how quickly can I react and pull in behind?”

Prior to overtaking, move up reasonably close behind the vehicle you want to pass. But remain far enough back to see clearly past without endangering yourself, either by then finding you need to get too far out in the road in order to see, or by getting so close you will be in trouble if the driver of that vehicle slams his or her brakes on.

The best “ready” viewing position is usually much farther back than you expect, particularly when you are behind a large lorry or a bus! Being further back allows, through curves in the road, etc., opportunities to spy ahead which are denied if you are too close.

You remain “ready” until, either, (a) you can see that you can pass and have time to return to your side safely- and so you do, or, (b) you can see it won't be safe, and so you drop back again temporarily. Never stay close, as if on the point of passing, when you know that you can't go anyway at the moment. Cancel your signal meantime.

Apart from in a queue, at all times maintain a substantial safe gap between yourself and whatever is in front of you. It is selfish, as well as dangerous, to drive close when you do not intend to overtake. Being able to stop if that driver does, is fundamental.


Fig. 1. You are clear to overtake the lorry.

Additionally, the Highway Code makes it clear that gaps need to be seen to be available by people who want to overtake - who may wish to pull in in front of you. The Code also insists that you slowdown, if it is necessary, in order to let someone passing you pull in safely. When someone does fill the gap you have been leaving, you must drop back further and create a fresh one.

Look at fig. 1. You are driving in the “ready” position behind a lorry, having previously checked your mirrors over enough distance to be sure that no-one is hoping to pass you; the road ahead is clear and straight and you have started your right flashing indicator signal. None of the Code-specified reasons against overtaking are in evidence. You are clear to overtake. You double-check your mirrors and there are still no worries there.

With no doubt whatever, go, quickly. Do not linger once you have decided. Otherwise cancel your signal and drop back, as already explained, until another opportunity to move up “ready” arises.

Leave a door's width, and a bit more for good measure, between you and the vehicle you are passing.

In the “ready” position it is essential to be in the right gear for maximum acceleration. You want to minimize the length of time that you go out on to the wrong side of the road, and the right gear makes sure that you can do so. Below about 15 m.p.h. use 2nd gear; reckon to change up after you pass. In the same way, if your initial speed lies between 20 and 50 m.p.h., use 3rd to add speed throughout the pass. Do not normally change up to 4th (or 5th) until you are safely back on your own side. A “missed” gear change during overtaking may cause an accident. In a car with five gears, remember 4th will have much more acceleration power than 5th.

Bad Advice About "Cutting In"

Learners are often told to wait, before moving back in, until they can see in their mirrors, at least the front wing of the vehicle they have passed. This crazy, amateur, advice, is handed out with the air of authority of a police regulation, as if cutting in was the biggest of all motoring sins. In fact your only duty, in normal circumstances, is not to cause the driver concerned to have to slow down or brake.

I'm not suggesting you should ever cut in without reason. However, following that mirrors' method keeps you in danger, on the wrong side, far too long. In those extra seconds you could be killed. Dramatic language perhaps, but it is just at such times that things go wrong. A nutcase racing motorcyclist, for example, may appear from round the next bend at 120 m.p.h., that rider presuming that his or her side, will be clear. I can assure you there will be many times when you bless the fact you moved in promptly.

If your speed is much faster than that of the person you are overtaking, then because you are pulling ahead so rapidly, you can move in amazingly soon without that driver having to slow down. A quick glance over your shoulder proves this, and helps you judge it. When your speed is not much above that of whoever you are passing, you have to leave it a little later; however, if you cannot muster sufficient acceleration to complete the pass swiftly - why are you doing it?

In emergency, do not be afraid to cut in quite fiercely. If faced with a choice of a head-on collision or just bumping the chap you are passing, the latter must be the safer alternative. That vehicle is going at much the same speed as you, and a bump would probably amount to little. Its driver might have seen the crisis anyway, and braked out of your way. But even a brush with someone coming the other way could turn into a major smash, with some of those involved probably being flung into the ditch, and many additional vehicles and casualties caught up in the melee.


Fig. 2. Mirrors and door pillars blind spots.

Common Dangerous Overtaking Errors

Drivers frequently over-estimate the power of their cars. In their optimism they begin passing, only to find they have not got the acceleration to get past in time. Or, they just don't use the acceleration (via the gears), which they have got. Their troubles worsen when they try to pass a mad driver who thinks he or she will enjoy a “dice”, and accelerates. They end up dangerously close to overtaking round a blind comer, or else forced to jam on the brakes, hoping to return to the space they started from.

Far from thinking of “racing” when you are being overtaken (which would be illegal), you need your wits about you; so that you can slow down and allow an overtaker who has misjudged things to get back in, or you can maintain speed (or even speed up) should you see that that person has seen the error and has decided to drop back.

Judge your acceleration power carefully. A good motto is to “pass only when you know you have 30% more power in hand than you expect to use”. In early days when, even as an “L”, you need to pass a slow-moving vehicle, your instructor must guide you as to whether your car has enough speed in hand. Later on, be sure to extend your experience gradually, especially when, after your Test pass, you're on your own.

A second common error is to omit that final double-check in the mirrors before overtaking. Quite often, in a line of traffic, the driver of a fast car at the rear will happen to be the earliest to be in a position to see that the road is clear. With that car's extra reserve power he or she attempts to shoot past the whole line of vehicles. If you swing out, you may cause a serious accident.

The rule of the road is to give way to the overtaking driver. He or she may, seeing your intention from your signal, be a fool, but anyone who is out there first is within their rights. They are entitled to regard your signal as being of intention only. Fig. 2 shows amazingly large areas A and Bin which a car or even a lorry - which is about to overtake, can be invisible to you during a once-only check in the mirrors. To spot every car or motorcycle, continuous mirrors checking is essential, not just a quick glance before you move out.

Even so, despite the most responsible of mirrors work, a nagging doubt sometimes creeps in at the last second as to whether anyone is hidden there. (Has a daring motorbiker swept up to pass, out from B1, fig. 2, through A1, for example?) At the point of moving out to overtake, therefore, the experienced driver will slide a nifty glance over his or her right shoulder – just enough to spot anyone “breathing” up there. s1.directupload.net_images_140801_hloqxh9m.jpg

Fig. 3. A false sense of security.

Poor mirrors use, particularly causes accidents on motorways and dual carriageways. There, a long distance rear view is essential because people can zoom up behind very fast, from “nowhere”.

A third overtaking error is where you, as the overtaking driver, passing a large lorry, fail to notice that its driver has been (dangerously) tail-gating a small “old hanger” just in front of it. That “hanger” could rob you of your required space to get back in the traffic stream.

Your “ready” position must be far enough back from the lorry for you to avoid this trap; apart from offering better opportunities of being able to pick a safe gap for overtaking, which are very necessary, the extra space provides moments to see past immediately in front of the lorry at bends, or to look underneath it going over the brow of a hill.

A fourth overtaking error often causing accidents, happens on fairly wide roads with two lanes of traffic in each direction. As you are using the outer of these lanes to overtake, rather than the wrong side of the road, you can be lulled into a false sense of security. Suppose the outer stream is travelling a wee bit faster than traffic in the inside lane, and you - no. 1 in the outer lane as in fig. 3, along with everyone else in your lane - have been continuously overtaking those in the inner lane. Before you know it, car no. 3 in front, which you think is merely continuing with this overtaking, is, in fact, slowing down ready for turning right. By the time you realize, it may be somewhat late to draw up behind 3, and impossible to get back into the left hand lane because of 2. Admittedly, 3, in this picture, neither signaled, nor positioned well so as to make his or her intention obvious (and, maybe, the car's brake lights had failed), but that is no excuse for you; you ought to have spotted you were following a wally, a long ways earlier!

Alternatively, your problems could have come to a head before you began to overtake 2. Imagine that 2 suddenly decided to swing across and turn right, just before you got alongside, and that its driver never saw you in his or her mirrors … Despite the “secure” feeling that can take hold in the sorts of conditions described, you must remember that your stream is nevertheless overtaking the inside one, and that to be actually passing one of the inner stream at, or approaching, a junction, puts you in the wrong. The Highway Code warns against any such overtaking.

Drivers who do so, risk spectacular, death's-door crashes. Take the overtaken driver in fig. 4, who had been slowing down to allow the car waiting in the side road to come out and turn right. That driver never expected that good deed to herald a serious smash, but two fatal errors strode in. The impatient fellow behind ignored the junction and tried to accelerate past. The driver emerging from the side road did so too quickly to stop, even though looking the right way at the right time. He or she assumed all the traffic from the right would stop … An even worse mistake would have been to try to cut across on the way out and round …


Fig. 4. Fatal errors.

A fifth principal overtaking area for misjudgments occurs on “killer” three-lane roads. These are two-way roads where the centre lane is for overtaking or turning right only. Lane divisions into three are not always marked; indeed, sometimes there is actually a centre line trying to denote two lanes only, but local practice and relentless heavy traffic mean that three-lane conditions are a fact of life. Traffic in either direction will use the centre - laned or not.

Only custom really dictates who you are going to find there in the middle. Traffic going one way has no more right to be there than that going the other way. “First come, first served” is the best way to describe what should happen, but you dare not rely on it. Once you have moved to the middle (assuming it was clear first!), approaching drivers should treat it as yours and not pull out. The trouble is, they often ignore this reasonable basis. Equally, when anyone coming the other way has started to overtake or is “established” in the middle, don't you move out!

I hope these “killer” roads will be phased out eventually in favor of dual carriageways, but in the meantime, the safest advice is never to overtake while traffic is thick and fast. The chance that a driver from the other direction will risk breaking custom, regrettably, places you at what I believe to be too high a risk. If one does pull out despite your already being in the middle, give him or her priority; get back in. Avoiding a smash is more important than arguing the toss afterwards (if you are lucky enough to be around … ).

During daylight, if I am in the middle, high risk, lane, I switch on headlights, as well as my normal right flashing indicator signal, 'til I am ready to move in. (At night I would have dipped headlights on anyway.)

Move in as directly as you can after passing. On these “fast” roads, unexpected traps - like running out of petrol or a smashed windscreen - often spring!

As a rule, keep your “door's width and a bit for good measure” alongside passing-gap, but realize that it is stupid to be that far from what you are passing, and only perhaps half the distance away from traffic zipping the other way. If the circumstances were that tight, you must have been trying to pass in a dangerous place. However, should you find yourself in such a predicament, move in half your door's width. Then you will have a half door's width gap, plus your good measure, on the “good” side, and be leaving a full door's width (and a touch more of good measure!) on the “deadly” side.

In normal conditions of ample room, therefore, always position yourself so that most of the spare gap is on the “bad” side. Keep away from danger, nearer safety.

Sometimes at long hills, double white lines divide these three-lane roads, as to two lanes uphill and one lane downhill. Look at those lines carefully. It is not necessarily safe to assume that you can always move, free of danger from oncoming traffic, into the outer lane in the uphill direction. Whenever the double white line nearest the single lane is a broken one, oncoming traffic is free to move out and use that lane coming towards you, just as if it were an ordinary middle lane of three …

The sixth dangerous overtaking factor which I will mention, is failure to notice that the gap you plan to move back in to, is shrinking. The traffic stream, further ahead than you have been looking, is stopping! I have several times risked repeating that you must always be looking where you are going, because of all the faults all learners make, forgetting this one is the most popular, and the most deadly. And the worst part of it is not looking far enough ahead. You must learn to match your driving to the ever-changing situation right out to the horizon on the road in front. You're not looking far enough ahead until you never miss a trick between you and the most distant point that the eye can see. If you’re not getting it right, the shrinking gap will one day catch you out.

The Warning Hoot

Whenever you overtake, assume that the driver you are about to pass is unaware of it, unless you have seen that person notice you. If there is any chance the driver could inadvertently compromise the safety of your pass, give a toot, once within earshot. Then your presence should be known, but never depend on it; the driver may be deaf.

Overtaking On Dual Carriageways

When you want to move to an outer lane to pass someone, there should be fewer problems in front, but watch out! All lanes ahead could be piling up into an accident! Keep the long view, way out ahead, well within your focus.

Once you are in a middle or outer lane you may want to overtake more than one vehicle before moving in, provided you feel your continuing progress will not unnecessarily hold up faster traffic arriving behind. (You do not want to become a moving obstruction!) There is no need to continue with your right flashing indicator for this additional overtaking. Cancel it. (Its use was to show you were intending to move out - not that you are staying there! If you are now in a middle lane it could confuse those passing in an outside lane anyway.)

A priority, as you reach each of a row of vehicles you are passing, is to watch none of them pull out on you. If anyone “threatens” to at a crucial moment, or does, you have to decide whether you are still safe to go on, or you MUST brake, and let the person out. A (gentle) hoot in time may warn the driver you are there if he or she has not seen you.

What you must never do, if you are in a middle lane, is suddenly to swing out into a lane outside yours. Stay in lane.

Swerving out causes many bad accidents. It is all very well to assume an outside-lane driver coming up fast will have been watching the whole developing scenario of death, and slowing up in case (as I pray you always will if you are that driver), but the terrible fact is, most do not. Be warned.

No Overtaking On The Inside

There are only four exceptions when it is right to overtake on the inside, apart from on one-way streets. In practically all other circumstances doing so is dangerous and contrary to the Highway Code. The exceptions are:

1. When you are correctly passing through on the left of someone who has signaled his or her intention to turn right and is slowing down. (Note that for this purpose you must not enter a bus lane during its period of operation. You must wait!

2. When you are in a left hand lane in stop/start queuing lanes of traffic and that inside lane is, for the time being, moving up faster than the next outer one (e.g. on a dual carriageway if an outer lane is blocked by road works and all lanes are down to walking pace). However, you are not supposed to chop and change lanes for temporary advantage.

3. If you are turning left shortly and an inside lane (but not a bus lane at reserved times) is free to take you there, while others carrying straight on may be having to slow or stop.

4. When your lane at traffic lights enjoys a lit green left filter arrow whilst red continues to hold others.

There is, and should be, a general expectation among drivers that, apart from the above times, they will not have people trying to zip by inside them while they are travelling at the general traffic speed. It doesn't make any difference whether they are going along in a wide single lane, or, if they expect soon to be overtaking, in an outer lane if there happens to be more than one.

They need to know that it will be safe to move in quickly if sudden danger forces them to. Unfortunately on our overcrowded roads, an increasing number of drivers are flouting the safety rules and will not wait for you to move over (as you should directly you can) when they want to pass. They pass you on the inside, with hardly a second thought. You just have to watch out for them. Only your mirrors or a glance over the shoulder can alert you to such dare-devils - especially the two-wheeled types - but you may not have time to worry about them too much in a life or death emergency, one which forces you left without time to stop instead.

If only every driver would consistently move to the most leftward lane available, as instructed by the Highway Code, the reason for all this rule-breaking by people wanting to pass, would be removed.

The growing menace of illegal inside overtaking makes using a left flashing indicator signal prior to moving to a lane on your left doubly important, even though you can expect most of those lawless drivers to ignore signals as well as rules.

Overtaking Cyclists

Never pass too close to cyclists. Try to give them at least a door's width, plus a little; they often “wobble”. If a cyclist is already “wobbling”, or looks likely to, give a gentle toot well before you overtake. Cyclists usually “wobble” more going uphill and they frequently make wide detours for manhole covers, etc. If you are going to have to move out, even a little amount, always signal beforehand; people behind need to know. When a cyclist is coming the other way, remember motorists trying to pass that bike may suddenly swing out quite substantially - temporarily forgetting about you!

If a cyclist ahead of you signals to turn right and pulls across to the crown of the road, give lots of extra room if/when you pass on the inside. Move in earlier than usual, if you safely can; then people behind you should spot the cyclist in such a vulnerable position, sooner than they might otherwise do.

The Highway Code instructs you, “Do not overtake a cyclist or motorcyclist immediately before turning left .. ”. Let them get on ahead of you.

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