Overtaking - Questions and Answers

This tip came about from a variety of correspondence on the subject both to me and on www.visordown.com over the last couple of years and it's clear that it's something that riders have trouble with, something that the Cheshire accident figures confirm - nearly 1 in 11 bike accidents in the study resulted from overtaking errors and hitting a car that turned right. Other accidents involving hitting vehicles head on also resulted.  (see Background: Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths in this section)

Q What are the legal aspects of overtaking?

A Off to the Highway Code. All overtaking must be made to the RIGHT or offside of the vehicle except:

     when the driver in front is turning right and there is sufficient room, it is safe and legal to overtake to the left
     when the rider is turning left and there is sufficient room to do so
     in one way streets where traffic in the right hand lane(s) is travelling slower
     in slow moving traffic where traffic is moving slower in the outside lane, provided the rider does not change lanes to gain advantage


     where it would mean crossing double or single solid white lines. (The exception to this rule is when it's safe to pass an obstruction such as a road maintenance vehicle, a cyclist or a horse. They must be either stationary or travelling at less than 10mph)
     within the zigzag area on approach to a pedestrian crossing
     where signs indicate a prohibition

YOU SHOULD NOT OVERTAKE where forward vision is restricted to such an extent that there is insufficient room to complete the manoeuvre in the area visible, such as on the approach to :

     a corner or bend
     dead ground
     a brow of a hill or bridge

Q Surely all I have to worry about when overtaking is if it is safe and legal?

A Ask yourself: why you are overtaking? Is there any point in overtaking one vehicle in a long queue on a twisty road where you know there are no other overtakes possible for miles? Is there any point in overtaking just before a roundabout? Is there any point overtaking a car travelling at the same speed as you? Is there any point making a difficult overtake when there is a much better opportunity just a few hundred meters ahead?

"Making progress" has become a buzzword on advanced courses. Even so I was rather surprised to be picked up on an observed ride by my IAM observer some years back for failing to overtake a pickup truck when I had the opportunity. I asked the observer: "what happened to the speed limit 300m past the point you said I should have overtaken?" He noted it had gone from a 60 to a 30 limit. I asked: "how long did that limit last?" The answer was about half a mile. I then asked whether you could see the national limit sign at the other end of the village. Yes you could. "What happened when we got there?" You overtook. Next question: "did the pickup slow down for the speed limit? No it didn't. So, I would have overtaken the pickup in a bit of a hurry, only to have to brake for the limit and now have the pickup stuck to my number plate. Final question I asked the observer: did I lose the opportunity to make any useful progress? And on this point we agreed to disagree. In my opinion, consider overtaking opportunities, yes - but only commit to one when you're sure the overtake is worthwhile as well as safe. One less potentially dangerous manoeuvre has to be a good thing.

Q So what's a good system for overtaking?

A If you want to make a safe overtake, it's all about doing it methodically.


As you approach, make a 360 degree scan and assess the road ahead for hazards:

     do you have a good view ahead?
     are there bends you can't see around?
     is there any "dead ground" in dips which might hide a vehicle?
     are there any crests which might hide an oncoming vehicle?
     can other drivers see you?
     are there any dangers resulting from the road layout? Look for signs and road markings such as the hazard warning line, and scan for potential hazards where vehicles might turn or emerge such as:
         the approach to a junction
         factory entrances
         farms and fields
     is there any oncoming traffic?
     is there any traffic ahead of the vehicle you intend to overtake? In particular look out for slow moving vehicles that the vehicle you intend to overtake may itself attempt to pass:
         bicycles and mopeds
         farm vehicles
         milk floats
     do you have a safe gap to pull back into?
     surface - are there any problems like potholes, surface changes or slippery patches you may encounter?
     does the road narrow ahead?
     are there any bollards or traffic islands ahead?
     do you have the legal right to overtake?

Remember the need for rear observation to check the position of following traffic and bear in mind:

     mirror blind spots
     shoulder checks at the wrong moment can be dangerous

Combine regular and sensible use of mirrors with a shoulder check at an appropriate time and commence your observations in plenty of time so the sequence not rushed.

Never overtake unless you're certain it's safe to do so. Don't overtake:

     unless it's necessary
     if your view ahead is blocked
     if other drivers might not be able to see you
     if there isn't enough room
     if the road narrows
     if you're approaching a junction

If you decide that you have a sufficiently good view and the road layout allows, what other possible hazards should you consider? Ask yourself:

     do I need to move onto the other side of the road to pass safely?
     do I have sufficient space to overtake safely?
     have I judged the distance and speed of oncoming vehicles correctly?
     do I have sufficient power to overtake briskly?
     can I see and be seen? - consider the option of a horn signal to alert the driver you are about to pass
     are other vehicles restricting my options?
     can I safely pull back to the left?
     have I enough room to get out of trouble?

Where the view is restricted consider:

     delaying your overtake
     adjusting your position for a better view

Watch out for following traffic attempting to overtake you: vehicles closing up fast from behind pose a big hazard.

Start the system in plenty of time

     on seeing the hazard ahead, take rear observation
     select a responsive gear, so you can accelerate swiftly
     if safe to do so, move up from the following position to the overtaking positionng
     take a final check of the traffic and road situation ahead and behind, changing your riding plan if necessary
     signal, consider use of the horn
     lifesaver glance
     OVERTAKE - passing in a straight line briskly and considering acceleration, cancelling signal
     once past hazard, check over left shoulder to ensure it is safe to pull in, regain normal road position, without cutting in, check mirrors and resume normal course and speed.

Q What is this "following position and overtaking position" business?

A It's from "Motorcycle Roadcraft", the police manual. The following position is your normal riding position in lane at a safe gap, where you can stop safely if the vehicle you are following suddenly stops without warning. If you think you may have an opportunity to make the pass safely, move up into the overtaking position, which is closer than normal to the rear of the vehicle you are about to pass and adjacent to the white line where you should be visible in the door mirror. This is the position from which you make the final Go/Stay decision.

Moving up to the overtaking position is probably the most difficult skill to learn - timing it right requires excellent observation and planning and anticipation too. You might be able to anticipate a straight section of road following a bend, and can move up to be ready to pass as soon as you can see ahead clearly, but don't take chances by following too close in blind bends. Be patient. Be careful when choosing the moment to move up to the overtaking position because you are losing your 2 second gap, although to some extent the offside escape route compensates. If you find that the overtake is not on after all, don't sit there waiting for the next opportunity - drop back to your normal safe following position and start planning all over again. One thing to be aware of here is that if you make this forwards/backwards movement exaggerated or too often, it can confuse following drivers.

Figuring out when to sit back and when to move up on overtakes is a difficult one - there's no easy rule of thumb to deal with that, but generally long range observation and planning helps. If you can see a bend 2-300 yds ahead, you're unlikely to get an overtake in in that space, so I would drop back, but as I come up to the corner, I'd be starting to consider closing back up, so that if the corner was followed by a straight straight, I'd be in the overtake position as soon as possible after I could see round the bend and spot the overtake opportunity. This means getting the rear observations and gear changing done in advance. The clue that you have got it right is that the movement from the following to the overtaking position and on into the overtake itself is one smooth movement - you may not even have to accelerate to complete the pass safely. If you have to accelerate hard or brake in mid-flow, you haven't got it quite right.

Q I find that by the time I've moved up to the following position to the overtaking position, the opportunity has gone

A This is why forward planning is so important - if you are not planning far enough ahead this is what happens. It often seems easier to sit right on the car's back bumper because you don't have so far to travel, but it is much more dangerous because you have to focus much more on not running into the back of the car, and it often takes longer to pass the car because you have to accelerate through the pass from the same speed as the car.

Q Are there any key rules to overtaking?

A Four key rules to safe overtaking:

     good forward observation and good rearward observation - remember that if you are thinking of an overtake, so might somebody else!
     ask yourself "is an overtake actually necessary here?"
     Never overtake on the approach to a junction even if you are sure the vehicle in front is not going to turn - drivers rarely look for overtaking vehicles as they pull out!
     if in doubt, don't go! Take your time but never take a chance - safety is paramount!

Q What is the big danger whilst overtaking?

A Apart from making such a foul up of the overtake that you hit a car coming the other way, the biggest danger is from the vehicle you are passing pulling out itself to pass something or turning right, or being hit by a car emerging from the right!

Q But no-one can miss seeing a car coming towards them!

A You will normally have to move to the other side of the road into the path of on-coming traffic, so it helps to be clued in about the space you have to overtake in and the speed of oncoming vehicles. Don't rely on just one glance to judge speed and distance - closing speeds can often be very deceptive. It's easy to get into the habit of seeing dozens of Sunday afternoon drivers bimbling along at 45mph, and completely miss
the GTi or much more likely, the Fireblade catching the them up at the ton and filling the gap you were about to use for the overtake.

Q But if I'm overtaking and someone turns right, it's not my fault is it? After all I signalled, he didn't check his mirror!

A There is no point blaming the driver, as the unfortunate Motorcycle News "Think bike before turning right" campaign did a few years back. It's just another excuse for not thinking for yourself. If you have had a scare like that, the question you should be asking yourself is "what was I doing overtaking there in the first place?" Check for any possible place the vehicle could turn right or any other reason it might have to pull across your path, like a narrow stretch of road or a bicycle ahead. Don't forget a tractor can turn right almost anywhere, is unlikely to have any functioning signals and probably no mirrors either!

Ask yourself if the driver ahead has seen you. Bikes are small and disappear in drivers' blind spots, and the blind spots on vans and trucks are huge. It is quite possible they do not know you are there (even assuming they are looking in the first place), and swing right or accelerate whilst you are attempting to overtake. Watch the driver - has he looked in his rear view mirror or door mirror - his body language should give you a clear idea if he is aware of your presence. What can you do to alert him to your presence if you do decide to pass? Why not use the horn? A short note just before you fully commit will warn him you are there!

Be very careful if you come round a corner or pass a lorry and come upon a slow moving vehicle, with a nice clear road ahead and an overtake beckoning. The temptation is to simply carry on and blast past, but think about it for a moment - this driver has had no chance to see you coming, and your pass will be a complete surprise! By all means use the passing opportunity, but be careful - double check for safety and consider using the horn!

And the car turning right in front of you is not the only danger - what about the driver who is waiting to turn LEFT from the side road? Which way will he be looking as he pulls out? Not for you blasting up what from his perspective is the wrong side of the road. Worse still is the danger from a driver pulling out of a layby.

Q I can understand overtaking past a right turn being wrong but what's the problem with overtaking a car turning left?

A It's safer, that's true - but not fool proof. Favourite dangers here are that the car slows, you go to overtake and a vehicle from the side road pulls out and turns right without having seen you, or the car slows and then swings wide to make the turn easy and sideswipes you as you overtake. It might even change its mind, and carry on, trapping you in the wrong lane.

Another one that nearly caught me out as a courier was that I went to pass a car that was turning left on a wide road, but the driver flashed the car that was waiting to turn right in the oncoming lane to cross in front of him and into the side road. The other driver went for it first and looked second, saw me bearing down on him and stopped!! The road ahead was now almost completely blocked with a car stationary on the left waiting to do the left turn, a car stationary and straddling the white line, and oncoming traffic passing to the right... fortunately I'd long since learned to keep the speed down and give myself chance to stop!

Q What about overtaking on dual carriageways?

A The main danger (apart from those which allow turning across the central reservation) comes from drivers changing lane and high speed differentials between lanes. Look for cars closing up on slower moving trucks and pulling out to overtake. Make space if possible and take care they don't pull out suddenly in front of you, so don't sit in their blind spots. When you move back into the middle lane from the outside lane, make sure you signal so drivers know your intentions. Before changing lane to the right yourself, make sure you double check for faster vehicles - a shoulder check is a good idea as a motorcycle can vanish in YOUR blind spot.

Q Should I use a signal to overtake?

A Remember the purpose of a signal - it is used to alert other road users to your intended action - so just before you commit yourself to the manoeuvre, it would be a good idea to pop the indicator on, but make sure you give people at least a couple of flashes to respond to - it is no good indicating and moving in the same instant, and don't sit with the indicator on when you can't possibly overtake - it just confuses people. Don't forget that your position is also a signal. Sitting out wide on the right sends a clear message about your intentions both to the vehicles ahead and vehicles behind, just as returning to the following position does. If you suddenly dart out from your normal riding position, not only are you losing the benefit of view but also you are likely to take everyone by surprise. And DON'T BE AFRAID TO SOUND THE HORN - it's what it's there for. If the driver's got his nose buried in an A-Z or a pile of consignment notes, it'll make him look before swinging into that delivery bay!!!

Q I get impatient waiting for cars to overtake

A Remember other drivers problems - cars (almost certainly) and trucks (for certain) have much less acceleration than you and will need a much bigger gap to pass, so you ought to be able to find plenty of other opportunities to make a way past convenient to both of you. You would be wise to expect the driver to go for the overtake when a suitable long gap appears, so pause before you attempt a pass yourself and give him the chance. It is rude and dangerous to attempt to bully your way through. If the driver appears nervous of your presence, why not drop back until you have a clear overtaking opportunity? It will make it clear you do not intend to pass there and then, so that the driver will not hesitate and end up losing the gap for both of you. Drivers are far more likely to make a mistake and do something dangerous for both of you if you are right on the back bumper. In particular do not harass learner drivers.

Q I often see bikes overtaking along the white line. Can I pass between lanes of traffic where the road is wide enough?

A As long as there are no legal restrictions, there are no specific rules to say no. But it's highly dangerous.

Drivers are not expecting overtakes and they are likely to move out to the white line for a better view ahead - and there's always the danger of meeting someone doing the same thing coming the other way. Three lane roads are bad for this.

Q On my RoSPA test, the things I was marked down for were:
1) Changing gear mid overtake
2) Following position too aggressive
3) Overtook next to a left hand junction

A Most of overtaking safely is about planning ahead to take advantage of a brief window of opportunity. If you are having to change gear mid-overtake, you clearly weren't in the right gear to start with. It might
not have been dangerous at that particular moment but on another overtake which doesn't go quite as intended you might rue that missed acceleration. We've already mentioned the dangers of following too close and overtaking near a junction.

Q So, I've finally decided it's safe to pass - I should get past as quickly as possible, right?

A Wrong. When you decide it's safe to overtake, pass briskly, decisively but slowly enough to give drivers chance to spot you in their door mirrors and to allow you to take avoiding action either by swerving or braking just in case things go wrong. Particularly when passing a line of cars, if you blast past at 100mph plus, drivers towards the head of the queue simply will not have had chance to see you coming - and if a car is going to pull out in front of you, its going to be one or two back from the vehicle at the head of the queue - just where your passing speed is highest. So if passing at a safe speed does not give you sufficient time, don't go!

Q Aren't we being too cautious? Everyone knows bikes overtake cars.

A The thing is that even though it's something we are much more likely to do on the bike, most car and van drivers will not even be considering the overtake option where we will simply because they cannot overtake in the same place, so they will not be thinking about us - you have to get into the habit of doing the other driver's thinking for them.

Riding a bike is all about making progress but there are few manoeuvres where speeds of vehicles are so high and the dangers so great! There's no point having written on your tombstone "I had right of way". This is something I bang on about at everything from CBT to advanced level... and I still have trouble making my point... so few riders actually bother to look to the sides or behind them as they approach junctions, or ride through traffic lights. On CBT I can forgive it, at DAS level I'm actively nagging. But for experienced riders not to get it is scary!