Start your journey into better biking here!
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
I originally put this particular article together for two reasons. It was partly because of the volume of emails directed to my old 'Doctor's Surgery' page, and an even larger number of questions posted on the bike forum I was moderating. And it was partly because of the crash statistics and the shocking rate of fatalities resulting from overtaking errors. Just one study from Cheshire (see 'Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths') showed that just under 10% of all crashes in the study resulted from overtaking errors, including overtaking a car that turned right and head-on collisions. As I wrote at the time I penned the original, that particular study is a few years old now, but from what I can see, nothing much has changed. Give riders a chance to overtake, and a significant proportion of us still manage to get it wrong - badly. So rather than write yet another "here's the right way to overtake", let's look at the cautions we should build into our planning; cautions to be applied whether we're new to biking or experienced.
There are two kinds of overtaking crash. Those made by riders who don't understand how to perform an overtake in the first place - I was certainly in that category for my first few years of riding and was lucky to survive some serious errors. But there are a second kind too - what I've come to realise over the years is that experienced riders, and especially those with a post-test riding qualification, become rather blase about the risks of overtaking. The more we carry out the overtaking manoeuvre, the more it becomes routine. Riders who started with cautious overtakes and wide margins for error begin to get increasingly confident. And then they begin to cut back on those margins.
Whever the source of the error, the trouble is that when we get an overtake badly wrong there's a fair chance it'll be both the first, the last and the ONLY time it goes badly wrong - the consequences are often fatal. When overtaking goes wrong, we may not get a chance to learn from our mistake.
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
YOU MUST NOT OVERTAKE :
- 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
* The actual traffic regulation is that you must not pass the car nearest the crossing within the zigzag markings - so you could legally filter up next to it, but not overtake until clear of the crossing.
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 I often see bikes overtaking and squeezing by cars just inside a solid line on the rider's side. Is that legal?
A The law says that no part of the bike (and that includes your body and your panniers - likely to be the widest part of your machine) should cross the solid white line. Just keeping the wheels inside isn't enough. And crossing it, no matter how tempting, is illegal - points and a fine. But, technically, if there is room then it is legal to pass inside the solid line.
However... drivers will NOT expect to be overtaken on a road with a solid line, will not be expecting it and may react aggressively as most road users think a solid line means no overtaking.
Q What about cross-hatched areas?
A If there are no legal restrictions, there are no specific rules to say no. With cross-hatched areas bounded by a broken line, the problem is a matter of interpretation of the law, which says we can enter if "safe and necessary to do so". We can - and I have - argued what constitutes 'necessary' many times. The problem is that your interpretation of necessary as "necessary to get ahead of a slower vehicle" may not be a non-biking magistrate's interpretation. Cross-hatched areas are there to create empty space by keeping traffic flows apart, often to protect vehicles turning right, on bends where there is a lot of heavy traffic, or perhaps where lanes are about to diverge or merge together; they are not handy motorcycle overtaking lanes. Using them to 'make progress' may not be illegal per se, but it could be risky. I will use them, but I'll have a good look to try to work out why they are there before I do.
Q OK, so how about up the middle of wide roads with a broken line? Can I pass between lanes of traffic where the road is wide enough? That's legal, surely?
Legal perhaps, but no-one expects to encounter a bike overtaking down the middle of opposing streams of traffic. What if someone ahead moves out for a better view ahead? What if an oncoming driver reacts aggressively? What if we meet someone doing the same thing from the opposite direction? Although they've become very rare, three-lane roads which allowed overtaking from opposite directions were notorious for head-on collisions.
Q OK, so if I avoid those traps, 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 much the same speed as you? Is there any point making a difficult overtake on a single carriageway when there is a sign saying "DUAL CARRIAGEWAY 1 MILE"?
Q Of course - I make more progress. Isn't that good?
A 'Making progress' has become a byword for 'advanced motorcyclist'. After a decade and a half of working as a courier, I knew a little about getting from A to B without hanging around too much. Even so, when I put myself through the IAM system back in the late 90s, I rather surprised to be pulled up on an observed ride by my observer for failing to overtake a pickup truck travelling at around 40 in a 60 limit on a dead straight road, since we were just approaching a short stretch of 30 limit through a village, and I could see the national limit resumed on the other side. The conversation that followed was along these lines:
Obs - "you had an opportunity to make a safe pass before the village"
Me - "but what happened to the speed limit 300m past the point I would have completed the overtake?"
Obs - "It went from 60 to a 30"
Me - "but how long did it last? You could see the national limit sign at the other end of the village."
Obs - "yes, but you could have made a safe overtake before the village."
Me - "did you notice if the pickup slowed down for the speed limit?"
Obs - "No it didn't."
Now, about this point our planning diverged. Mine was based on the reasonable assumption that a driver ambling along a dead straight bit of 60 limit at 40 would probably continue ambling along at 40 in the dead straight bit of 30 limit. His was based on the letter of the law.
Me - "So, I would have overtaken the truck, then slowed for the limit, only to have it stuck to my number plate for the next half mile".
Obs - "That's the driver's problem, not yours."
I disagreed then and I disagree now. It's very much my problem. By overtaking, I've converted a hazard that was ahead of me, where I can see it easily and can choose my own following distance, into one that's behind me where I cannot control the gap and one which I can only see in the mirrors. I actually lose control of the situation.
Me - "did I lose the opportunity to make any useful progress?"
Obs - "yes, you could have overtaken before the village."
Once again, I disagree. The gain was one vehicle on a lightly-trafficked road. Given the short stretch of 30 limit, it was perfectly reasonable to defer the overtake until I was out the other side, and back in the national limit.
So, here's the first question we ask, and it's not "is it safe?". It's "is it sensible and does it make USEFUL progress?" Getting one vehicle further up the road is neither here nor there, and having to slow down right in front of the vehicle we've just passed isn't sensible.
And here's the kicker. Overtaking is ALWAYS risky. So if we can defer a riskier manoeuvre - like that overtake on a single carriageway - until there's less risk on the dual carriageway, that has to be a good thing.
Q Surely if an overtake is done properly, there's no risk?
A Years ago, an ex-police instructor told me quite categorically that "done well, an overtake is perfectly safe". He was wrong. As a moment's thought would have told him, we can NEVER completely eliminate risk. From the moment we ride away from the kerb, there are always things that can go wrong and so our job is risk management. The biggest problem with overtaking is that we're not facing what the DVSA have called a 'static hazard'. A bend is a static hazard. The bend cannot change its mind about which way it's going - what we see is what we're going to get, and so long as our observation skills and ridiing technique are reasonably proficient, we should get round it. The only person who can get it wrong is the rider.
But an overtake involves at least one other human, quite possibly several humans. And however carefully we plan ahead, we CANNOT control what another human does. And if there's one thing we should have learned almost as soon as we hit the road, it's that humans make mistakes. Mid-overtake, however carefully we plan ahead, we're relying on other drivers to do what we expected them to do. It's when they behave in a way we were NOT expecting that things go wrong.
Q What are the big dangers whilst overtaking?
A Apart from making such a foul-up of the overtake that we hit a car coming the other way, the biggest dangers are colliding with the vehicle we're passing as it pulls out itself to overtake, hitting a car as it turns right, being hit by a car emerging from the right, or running into a car emerging from the left and turning into our path!
Q But no-one can miss seeing a car coming towards them!
A Sometimes riders don't miss the oncoming vehicle, but deliberately choose to pull out into its path. What we have to look at is not just the distance we need to get past a slower vehicle, but to allow AT LEAST the same distance ahead to deal with an oncoming vehicle appearing just as we commit to the overtake. Think about it.
The big problem is that our ability to judge the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles is sketchy at best at the kind of speeds and distances we need for overtakes on the open road. And the quicker the traffic we're passing, the easier it is to misjudge the gap ahead. Don't rely on just one glance to judge speed and distance - it's easy to miss the Ferrari being driven enthusiastically and closing from the other direction at high speed. That'll fill the gap we were planning on using. We'd better not be in it.
But sometimes we cannot see the oncoming vehicle when we commit to overtaking, because we're approaching a blind corner or maybe a blind crest. Legally, we have to be back to our side of the road where the line on our side turns solid, so most riders aim to return to the nearside as they pass the two 'toeing-in' arrows. But what if that Ferrari appears around the bend going like the clappers? That point-of-return will be far too late. So we need to build in a much bigger margin - essentially, if we cannot return to the left WELL BEFORE the arrows, we really shouldn't commit ourselves. Likewise, we shouldn't be cutting back in right in front of the vehicle we've just past. A 'well-judged' overtake that returns just before the solid line is actually an overtake with no margin for error. And with no margin, they have a habit of going wrong.
The final reason for hitting something head-on is because we attempt a multi-vehicle pass, aiming for a gap somewhere ahead, and the gap closes leaving us hung out to dry. Firstly, the old pilot's adage - never take-off without knowing where to land. We need to be absolutely certain of a gap to return to on the nearside. I'm highly cautious overtaking towards oncoming traffic, even when there appears to be a gap, because it may close up. I've had drivers try to help me out by braking just as I'm planning on pulling back behind them, and I've also been caught out passing vehicles that are themselves catching a slower-moving HGV. So we need to be really sure that the gap will still be there when we need it. Really, we should have TWO gaps to aim for - our intended landing zone and a back-up. And of course, if the car we're intending to pull in behind suddenly brakes to 'help out', it's possible to run into the back of it. That's a sign the landing zone was too short!
Q But what about the collision with the car turning right? If I'm overtaking and someone turns right, it's not my fault is it? He's supposed to check his mirror, isn't he?
A Unfortunately, riders think they have a 'right to overtake' and that it's the driver's responsibility to keep them safe. Motorcycle News went as far as putting a "Think bike before turning right" sticker on an issue years back, telling riders to put them on petrol pumps. I'm not even going to go into all the reasons drivers miss bikes in the mirrors. I'm simply going to ask you, if a car COULD turn right, what on earth is the biker doing overtaking just there?
That campaign was another excuse for riders not thinking for themselves. On a quiet bit of road, take a look at all the places a vehicle COULD turn right - side turnings, access roads, petrol stations... they're all obvious. What about driveways? Is it always easy to see the drive of a cottage on a country road? Where can a tractor turn right? Anywhere it likes. Knowing how difficult some of these places are to spot detunes me compared with less-cautious riders.
Because it's hard to spot a lot of the places where a vehicle COULD turn, we need to be really on the ball. We can watch the vehicle itself for clues. If it's just slowed down, that's not an invitation to overtake, but a warning sign. Watch the driver to see where they're looking - if it's not ahead, it could be where they are about to turn. We need to be particularly careful when we've just caught a slower vehicle up, particularly on a twisty road or if we've just overtaken from behind - the driver may not have seen us. If we do decide to pass, there's the horn? A short note just before we fully commit will warn him we're are there!
Q So if I'm sure the driver won't turn right, I'm safe to overtake, right?
A Wrong. What goes in must come out. If a vehicle can turn right, another can pull out. Most of us - bikers included - look right before turning out to the left. Expecting a motorcycle on the wrong side of the centre line is not in most road users' minds when they prepare to emerge. Watch out for lay-bys too - drivers are usually searching for traffic in their mirrors.
Q OK, so I'll take care to look for junctions on the right, but what's the problem overtaking a car turning left?
A Simple. Here's one issue. The slowing vehicle swings out wide to make the turn easy and sideswipes the bike into the undergrowth. Surprisingly common. Another is that a second vehicle pulls out ahead of us because our bike is in the blind spot behind the turning vehicle, and the driver's not expecting anything to be overtaking. If the driver turns right, they'll be looking left too, and we'll have a head-on. If the driver turns left, that may be the gap we were planning on moving back into. And of course, the driver may cancel the signal and carry on, hanging us out to dry on the wrong side of the centre line.
And here's one that nearly caught me out as a courier. I went to pass a car that was turning left on a wide road, but the driver flashed another driver of a car that was waiting to turn right in the same road, intending for him to cross first into the side road. The second driver started to turn, then spotted me bearing down on him and stopped! The road ahead of me was now almost completely blocked. Fortunately I'd long since learned to keep the speed down when overtaking, and was able to stop.
Q So, I've finally decided it's safe to pass - with my powerful bike I should be able to get past as quickly as possible, right?
A Wrong. The performance of modern bikes is a trap, not an advantage, partly because modern cars and trucks are a lot quicker too and partly because the straights on our roads haven't got any longer. And once we've gained speed, we have to lose it again. Especially when we're passing more than one vehicle, if we simply aim to pass "as quickly as possible" (and I winced when I heard another instructor say that) sooner rather than later we'll end up regretting all that speed as things don't go as we expected ahead. It may be tempting to blast past a line of slower vehicles, but we need to treat each individually as a separate overtake and be able to bail out at each stage - if we're thinking of overtaking, what's to stop one of those drivers doing exactly the same? So if the only way to pull off the overtake is in one hit at high speed, then don't.
Q So what's so risky about overtaking on dual carriageways?
A One of the biggest dangers are junctions where vehicles can turn through the central reservation. These junctions are relatively rare (most have been blocked up) but the crash risk is high. Even when there is no crossing the lanes, slip roads are often very short with emerging drivers struggling to gain speed to match the traffic bearing down. The result can be hard braking or sudden lane changes ahead. In either case, I usually defer overtaking till I'm clear of the junction, unless I can see that the junction's clear.
Most of the other issues are down to speed differentials. Slow-moving vehicles including cycles and tractors are allowed on dual carriageways and we can come up on them quickly, so we need to look and plan well ahead so we can move out in good time. If we're already passing slower traffic, look for cars in the inside lane catching HGVs that will probably want to pull out to overtake themselves. Don't hover alongside in mirror blindspots and don't approach at excessive speed - you may need to slow down if they pull out. suddenly in front of you, so don't sit in their blind spots. On three lane stretches, watch out for someone moving from the inside lane as we move back into the middle lane from the outside lane. A signal helps enormously.
And before we move out to make a pass, a series of mirror checks is best followed by a final blind spot shoulder check. However good our mirror checks, there's always the risk of finding a vehicle lurking right in the OUR blind spot.
Q So I just sit behind the vehicle ahead and wait for a big gap.
A Sort of. The simplest way to overtake is if we can simply move out wide early to get a view past the slower vehicle - if the road ahead looks clear, we simply carry on and our speed differential carries us past the slower vehicle. And if it's not clear, we simply move back in, then match speed.
But once we have to wait for a gap, then our first decision is how far behind the slower vehicle we should ride. If you've read 'Motorcycle Roadcraft' (or taken Roadcraft-based training) you've probably heard of the 'following' and 'overtaking' positions.
Essentially, the 'following' position is the normal distance behind the vehicle ahead, which allows us to stop if the vehicle ahead comes to an unexpected halt. That's where we should be when there's no prospect of overtaking. But if we think we may have an opportunity to pass, then it's suggested we move up into a much closer 'overtaking' position from where we make the final Go/Stay decision.
Now, the big problem is that we've compromised our following distance. In theory, we only move up when we think we might be able to pass and if it turns out we can't, we should drop back again and reinstate a safe distance. On a lightly-trafficked road, we should be able to make the overtake without too much delay and just a couple of forwards / backwards iterations, and that was likely the case on most roads when Roadcraft was first written to deal with 50s and 60s traffic.
Unfortunately, real life and heavy 21st century traffic intrudes on the theory.
The first observation I'll make (and one that I have never heard anyone else explicitly admit) is that the only reason we NEED to use the closer 'overtaking' position is because we're looking for to overtake in less distance - either a shorter straight between bends, or a smaller gap between oncoming vehicles. That restricted distance is why we need to be closer up in the first place. If that weren't the case, we could overtake from the more distant position.
The second issue (also rarely mentioned) is that we're often being followed by other vehicles. The drivers will of course maintain THEIR OWN following distance behind us. As we move up, they stay the same distance behind us. So when we try to drop back, we drop back into THEIR following space. And they are now too close behind. Put that together with a busy 21st century road and this moving up / dropping back means we're ping-ponging back and forth from the tailgate of the car ahead to the bonnet of the car behind. If we make this forwards/backwards movement too exaggerated or too often, it can and will confuse and irritate the driver ahead (who is watching you in the mirrors) and the driver behind (who wonders why you can't ride at a constant speed).
On a busy road, the temptation is to sit permanently in the close-up overtaking position waiting for the next opportunity because we don't have so far to travel, but the lack of following distance not only increases the risk if the car ahead slows suddenly, it actually interferes with our observation - if we're worried about running into the back of the car, then that's what we focus on - and we end up watching its brake lights rather than the road ahead or even our mirrors. Riders who say "I don't have time to take my eyes of the road and make a shoulder check before overtaking" are admitting they're too close. We also have to move out first THEN accelerate if we're too close behind - overtakes often become 'swoops' ending with excessive speed making it difficult to pull promptly back to the left.
You might read something like "moving up to the overtaking position is a difficult skill to learn - timing it right requires excellent observation and planning and anticipation too". I actually wrote that in the previous version of this article, but being totally honest, this forwards / backwards business quickly becomes exhausting. If it was needed for one overtake, the chances are it'll be needed for the next... and the next... and so on. And my old courier instinct to make life simple kicks in. If overtakes are that tricky, I probably won't bother - at least, not till a simple opportunity comes along and I am pretty sure I DO will have an opportunity to pass. I may miss a few overtakes, but I am reducing my exposure to risk significantly.
Q So how do YOU plan an overtake from the following position?
A Typically, I'll be looking for a straight after a right-hand bend where my following position behind the vehicle ahead will actually give me a good, clear view of both sides of the road - remember, I'm not just looking to see if something is coming the other way, but searching for junctions ahead which could be on either side of the road. If clear, I'll turn from the final part of the corner straight onto the other side of the road and accelerate whilst the vehicle I'm passing is just exiting the curve. This means getting my rear observations and gear changing done in advance. Done right, the acceleration from the following position to the overtaking position and into the overtake is one smooth movement. We shouldn't have to accelerate hard or brake hard to dip back in.
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.
Q I get impatient waiting for cars to overtake. I signalled, so why do they always pull out in front of me just as I want to go?
A Remember other vehicles (most cars and all trucks) have much less acceleration than we do, and will need a much bigger gap to pass, so as soon as such a gap appears it's a good idea to be ready for the driver to go for the overtake. The average car driver has a lot less practice at overtaking, and will be focusing all his / her attention on the road ahead, so don't expect your signal to be spotted. And if the car ahead has already signalled, don't attempt to bully your way through by accelerating more rapidly. Collisions with vehicles ahead moving out to pass out are not uncommon, so be cautious.
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. In any case, hanging back and giving the driver ahead 'first go' is polite - dropping back makes it clear that we're not intending to pass there and then, and that may help the driver ahead make a prompt decision. We may be able to follow through in the same gap, or even pass the overtaking car a moment later. And if the driver does have second thoughts and decide not to use the big gap after all, we can probably still pass ourselves - don't forget rear observations in case someone behind has seen the big gap, and be ready with a horn warning in case of a last-second change-of-mind by the driver ahead.
Q On my RoSPA test, the things I was marked down for were:
- changing gear mid overtake
- following position too aggressive
- overtook next to a left hand junction
A Hopefully by now you'll have seen that because most overtaking takes place in a brief window of opportunity, we have to be absolutely prepared to go when that opportunity arises. If we are having to change gear mid-overtake, we clearly weren't in the right gear to start with, and so we weren't planning far enough ahead. We may have got away with it on that occasion, but on another overtake which doesn't turn out as we might rue that missed acceleration. And we've already seen the problems of sitting too close to a slower vehicle, and the risks arising from overtaking near a junction.
Q So is any overtake necessary?
A If not overtaking means becoming part of a mobile road block, then the answer is a guarded yes. For example, if we cannot overtake a slow-moving tractor, then we're adding the the hazard it's creating, because other drivers will now have to overtake two vehicles, rather than just the tractor. And that puts us at additional risk. But once we are riding along in the general flow, then overtakes are 'nice' rather than 'necessary'.
Q Anything else?
A However quick you are, there will be someone quicker. Mirrors and blind spot checks are essential. Riders DO get taken out by vehicles they haven't seen catching them from behind. And if you've not got time for a blind spot check? You're rushing the overtake.
Q So what's a good system for overtaking?
A If we want to make a safe overtake, it's all about doing it methodically. SEARCH, EVALUATE, EXECUTE. There are plenty of guides to safe [sic] overtaking out there, so this article focuses on understanding the risks. Here are four simple rules to remember:
ONE - just because you COULD, doesn't mean you SHOULD. If our attitude is "if I didn't overtake I might as well be in a car" then it's the wrong attitude. Although 'progress' is often talked about as the result of advanced training, what we really should be doing is performing better risk assessments and making better risk management decisions.
TWO - overtaking is NICE, rarely NECESSARY. We should be looking at overtaking as a high risk activity, not somewhere to show off our technical skill. Skills should be used to build margins for error by asking "how could this go wrong?"
THREE - if we're thinking of an overtake, then so is someone else. And that someone might be ahead or behind. We need to be able to change our plan on an instant.
FOUR - if we don't KNOW, we don't GO! A lot of overtakes that go wrong fail because the rider's taken a chance. And it didn't work out.
Q Aren't we being too cautious? Everyone knows bikes overtake cars.
A But bikes are also 'out of sight, out of mind'. Because we can use smaller gaps, most drivers won't be considering an overtake, so the possibility that a bike will be passing won't occur to them - we have to get into the habit of doing the other driver's thinking for them.
Riding a bike is great fun, but there are few manoeuvres where speeds of vehicles are so high and the risks so high. It's no consolation that the words on our tombstone read "I had right of way".
Survival Skills Rider Training
...because it's a jungle out there
IMPORTANT: The information on the Survival Skills website is for your general information and personal use and should be taken as a guide only. Survival Skills Rider Training provides no warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness, clarity, fitness or suitability of the information and materials found or offered on this website for any particular purpose and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this website meet your specific requirements and you acknowledge use of any information and materials is entirely at your own risk, and that neither Kevin Williams nor Survival Skills can accept responsibility for your interpretation or use of this information or materials. The content of these pages is subject to change without notice.
Copyright © 1999 - 2019 Kevin Williams and Survival Skills Rider Training