Overtaking - lifesavers and following
One of my least favourite expressions is "if I didn't overtake, I
might as well be driving a car", as if a motorcycle is an automatic
licence to overtake.
Personally, I believe that there's nothing more dangerous that we do
on a bike than overtaking. Overtaking is inherently high risk.
However good you are, you can only make it safer, you can't make
Think about it for a moment - not only is it just about the only
accident that you'll accelerating into, but you're relying on other
drivers to behave in a predictable manner. It's often when the
driver you're passing does something you haven't expected that it
goes wrong, and then you're carrying one heck of a lot of speed.
So I tend to think that everything we do that decreases risk when
overtaking is a good idea. And one of those good ideas is knowing
what's behind you, which is probably the area that most riders
forget to check! "After all", they reason - "if you are overtaking
you're going faster so the hazard must be in front of you, no?"
Well, actually, no! If you're thinking about an overtake, so will
someone else be. The most obvious candidate is another bike but
there are plenty of cars out there these days with stunning
acceleration - ask Jeremy Clarkson!
So recently on Visordown the discussion raged again - lifesaver or
no lifesaver before pulling out to pass another vehicle?
The crux of the argument is whether you can believe in what is
sometimes called 'mirror history'. The idea is that if you check
your mirrors often enough, you will have seen something catching you
and should know if there is anything in your blindspot.
I'm afraid I don't really go with that - there are too many things
that can go wrong, and so I'm a believer in checking the blind spot
as a fail-safe. However much you look in your mirror it can only
tell you what's behind you, not what's alongside you.
The problem is that as the road gets busier, the chances of you
correctly filling in the information starts to go down dramatically.
As one contributor put it:
"I find there are some situations where I think a shoulder check is
essential and some where they aren't needed. It all depends on the
complexity of predicting the future. If you have gathered a stable
but dynamic, developing 'picture' of the space around you from the
information gathered in the period before the manouevre - other
traffic, behaviour, speeds - and can confidently predict that
nothing will adversely affect the manoeuvre... then you make the
move without a shoulder check. If the situation is one of high
complexity then you make the check."
That's about the way I'd see it - but given the human propensity for
making mistakes, I'd have to be very, VERY certain there was nothing
around me NOT to do one.
Look at it this way. You wouldn't rely on three or four glimpes
through a tall hedge to decide that is was safe to drive straight
out of a minor road across a main road, would you? You'd look
properly before committing yourself. Mirror checks can only give you
the rearward equivalent of these glimpses. But only a shoulder check
can show you what is actually IN the blind spot.
There are two problems, if you discount the obvious one of failing
to look often enough. Working out speed and distance - and then
deciding when that vehicle will arrive along side you. to do this
You'll need to look into the blind spot to see the bike or car that
comes up so quickly that you don't spot it between regular checks.
Do some sums. At 60mph you're travelling around 27 metres per
second. Say you check your mirrors every 5 seconds (and that's
pretty enthusiastic mirror checking, too) - in that distance you've
travelled around 130m.
Now, what if there is a bike (or possibly even a police car) doing
120mph coming up behind you? If you check your mirrors four times at
5 second intervals, with the final check when it's along side you,
the first time you check it'll be over 500m back - more than a
quarter of a mile. There's not that much chance you'll spot it -
think about how mirrors make things look further away!
Second check and it's now 270m back - that's still more than the
length of two football pitches - there's a pretty good chance you
still won't see it if there is a lot of other traffic in the lane.
Next check will be when it's 135m behind you. Sounds easy enough to
spot, but if it's in the same lane, and there is another vehicle
close behind you, will you see it? And even if you do, if you didn't
see it in either of the two earlier checks then what you don't know
is how fast it's going.
On your fourth check, the car/bike is alongside you. Scary.
Another problem with mirror history that you may find on a multilane
road if you are in the middle lane is that a vehicle will come up
fast on your left then do a sudden swoop from left to right to
switch sides to the outside lane of three - so that your checks in
your right mirror won't have shown it, and even mirror checks to the
left won't have warned of the driver or rider's intention. This can
also happen as you pass the "on ramp" on a motorway or dual
It's also saved me several times on motorways when a driver has
moved up from behind and then sat just alongside in my blind spot so
he's not visible in the mirror - the only way you'll spot that is a
blind spot check. In fact, updating this article today, it happened
on the motorway just yesterday morning - I'd watched a car come up
in the outside lane and move just ahead of me, then slow down
slightly and sit there, boxing me in. Whilst I was concentrating on
working out where I could safely move out to avoid the slower
vehicle ahead that I was catching, what I hadn't noticed was that
the car that had been following me in the same lane a moment
earlier, had now moved to the outside lane as well - right into my
blindspot. So when the first car finally put his foot down a bit and
I thought I had a chance to move out, a quick glance into the blind
spot before I committed myself showed me that the gap was already
occupied by a car.
So, things can change very fast indeed on motorways. Even if you
think you know what's there and it's going to stay there, you might
be wrong. Read this:
"The dangers of the assumption above were brought home to me when I
was being observed a few years ago. We were on our way back and it
was getting dark; my observer was riding a Pan and another Pan had
caught up with us which I hadn't seen; this second Pan had gone past
the observer who had moved over accordingly, so the lights I saw in
my mirror weren't his at all; thus there was very nearly a meeting
of fairings when I pulled out to overtake, thinking that my observer
had anticipated the overtake and was ready to follow me through,
when, in fact, it was the "foreign" Pan overtaking me."
So, given the safety benefits, why are some riders and instructors
so dead-set against them?
One of the main objections levelled against the blindspot check
before committing to an overtake is that it's potentially dangerous
if the car suddenly slows down.
My take on this is that if the car slowing puts you instantly at
risk, you're too close. Full stop. No argument. No "if's", "but's"
or "maybe's". If the car slows and you are inconvenienced by that,
whether you are looking over your shoulder or not, you should have
been further back.
Quite apart from the blindingly obvious point that if you can see
something that might force the car to slow, you shouldn't be there,
if you are the least bit worried about running into the back of the
car when planning an overtake, you won't be thinking about the other
problems the overtake is setting you - it's a form of target
fixation. Given the ever-more crowded state of the roads, the
chances of an overtake being completely free of oncoming traffic is
going down every day - you need more attention AHEAD of the vehicle
you're planning to pass and behind you too, not less by worrying
about running into it.
It's been claimed that looking behind takes too long. Some quoted
two seconds as the time it takes to look over your shoulder. I
wouldn't be spending two seconds looking behind me either, even at a
safe following distance. If it takes you that long to do a shoulder
check, you're being too precise about it AND looking too far behind.
Half the reason for this argument on the issue is that many riders
still think that a lifesaver is a long look behind. That was what
riders were supposed to do until fairly recently, thanks to the
DSA's reluctance to acknowledge bikes had mirrors till the late 90s,
but it's really not necessary. A lifesaver is simply a
chin-to-shoulder blind spot check timed before an important change
of position, into a potentially dangerous position. In other words,
it's the timing rather than the action.
It's simple enough to combine a mirror check and follow through
straight into a blind spot glance. Your head check has now filled in
the entire picture alongside and behind. I really cannot see why
people are so against the idea of doing them. If it's timed
correctly it's no more dangerous than looking in the mirror.
Whilst I'm on overtakes, I'll comment on the habit of moving up to a
very close "overtaking" position behind the vehicle ahead when
looking for an overtake. It's recommended by police instructors and
can be seen demonstrated on the Bikesafe 2000 video. For my liking,
that position is far too close - at one point on that otherwise
excellent video, there is barely a single hazard line between the
bike and the car ahead. Even their safer "following" position is
about half the distance I'd like to keep between me and another
So, I'd double the distances shown in that video - my following
position would be around the 2 second minimum safe distance, and my
closer up overtaking position around 1 second back.
Whilst it's true that the holding a more distant 1 second
"overtaking" position means you are accelerating from a greater
distance, with good timing you don't need to twist the throttle so
hard because you can get something of a "run" at the overtake.
Hanging back further allows you to catch up in the final part of the
corner, and often makes it easier to pass without excessive speed or
any wasted time. If you are too close, it's hard to accelerate
before you are wide and clear, which tends to lead to big throttle
In reality, if you overtake from further back, what you have to
avoid is carrying too much speed into the overtake. If a situation
starts to develop that looks awkward, you may have to pull back in.
If you can't pull back in, you are passing with too much speed. You
should pass slowly enough that you can bail out if you need to. I
can't begin to say how many times I've been in the middle of a pass
and something goes wrong that I've had to brake to avoid, and I
don't just mean misjudgements on my part - but brain out manoeuvres
by the other driver.
If you yo-yo between the close "overtaking" position and the more
laid back "following" position, you need to think how incredibly
distracting that can be to the driver you are trying to pass,
particularly if you have lights on. And something else that's rarely
mentioned is that as soon as you move up, the car behind YOU
maintains their own "is that a fly on that bike's numberplate?"
following position, so dropping back becomes problematic, if not
potentially dangerous - another reason for not getting too close in
the "overtaking position" and finding yourself the meat in a
Following too close through a bend is a mistake too, as most drivers
decelerate until they can see their way out of a corner - if you're
too close, that means you decelerate too and end up at lower revs
than you meant to.
Slow + high gear = longer time to make the pass when you finally go.
Another factor which is frequently ignored is that cars are
massively more powerful than they were even 10 years ago. Even
something that looks like it ought to trundle out of a corner like a
massive 4x4 can often accelerate pretty quickly. Yes bikes are
faster too, so we end up using ever higher speeds to make up the
Even a good overtake is potentially dangerous - so it makes sense to
make them as safe as we can, not to risk all on a hurried and