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Before you overtake, do you...?
...check for junctions on the left? Whenever I'm giving one of my Survival Skills presentations about avoiding overtaking collisions, it takes a few minutes to work through all the places we have to look out for. Most riders are aware of the hazards posed by junctions and other openings to the right, where the vehicle we're overtaking might turn right, or another in the side turning might emerge from. But way down the list is the fact that a junction or driveway on the left is just as much of a hazard. Why?
Here's what often happens. We see a vehicle ahead slow, and indicate left. "Good, that'll make it easier to pass" we think. And so we do all our other checks, swing wide and commit to the pass.
But as always with the Survival Skills approach to advanced riding, let's not assume things will go right, but think about what might go wrong.
What if the driver swings out to the right to make the turn easy? It's highly likely if the vehicle we're trying to pass is an articulated lorry or a bus, but cars do it too, and not always because the driver's being lazy, as we're all too quick to assume. The manoeuvre might be very awkward, maybe because the entrance is narrow or because it turns right back on itself.
What if there's a second vehicle actually in the side turning waiting to turn right? What's the driver of that vehicle likely to do as he sees the approaching car slowing with the left indicator on? There's a significant risk he will pull out, straight into our path and now we're set up for a head-on collision. Why does the driver go? Because he's seen the same as us, that there's nothing coming from his left (that's why we're overtaking), but he also thinks it's clear from his right, because of our position. Wide out to the right, we're blindsided by the car we're moving out to pass. We might well be able to see over the roof of the slowing car, but from where the driver is sat, all that's likely to be visible is the top of our helmet.
Or maybe that second vehicle plans on turning left. Exactly the same line-of-sight problem applies, only this time the driver pulls out and turns in the same direction we're headed. And maybe that takes away the gap we were planning on moving back into before encountering oncoming traffic.
So even if we back out of the overtake, what if the driver turning left cannot complete the turn? What if he's turning into a single track road and there's a vehicle coming the other way? Will the turning vehicle have to stop? And can we stop before we run into the back of it? A surprising number of crashes at junctions on fast roads happen when motorcycles collide with the back of vehicles that have slowed or stopped to make a turn.
And of course, there may be more than one vehicle involved. We may look at a pair of cars travelling relatively slowly, and decide we can hop into the gap between them. And then we realise the leading vehicle is slowing to turning left (or right). What will the vehicle we are passing do? The chances are the driver will be braking but aiming to slow or halt just behind the turning vehicle, bunching up close together. Where is our 'out' from the overtake now? It's probably vanished.
All these scenarios we should be able to spot developing, even if we haven't spotted where the vehicle will turn. We should see slowing vehicles, brake lights and probably indicators. We should be able to put two and two together and figure out what's happening.
But there's a final Worst Case Scenario which is not nearly so easy to detect. And that's when the vehicle we're about to overtake is NOT turning left but going straight on, but there's also a second vehicle waiting in the junction ahead, intending to turn right. Here's what happens. The driver looks left, sees the road is clear (our ahead - which is why we're about to overtake too), and pulls out across the vehicle we're just moving out to pass, straight into our path. The problem is that the emerging car doesn't need a big gap - the driver just needs enough space to get across the centre line and into the other lane.
That led to one of the very few genuine brown trouser moments I've had on a training course. The trainee set up an overtake past an HGV well. He's spotted we were about to exit a left-hand bend onto a long clear straight, moved wide to take a final check ahead, then started to accelerate...
...just as a Ferrari pulled out from the left, right in front of the truck and nailed it towards him. Fortunately, he wasn't totally committed and was able to hit the brakes and bail out of the overtake. But it was a scary moment.
Of course, it's not always easy to spot junctions and entrances on the left, but sometimes it's a simple failure of observation. One of the problems with overtaking is that it's such a complex speed / distance computation that we can get fixated on whether the road ahead is clear, and totally forget the job of scanning laterally for hazards. I've made this mistake myself, most recently on a BikeSafe assessment - I only spotted the entranceway after moving wide.
But very often, the most dangerous locations are flagged up good and early for us, but we still miss the warnings; a hazard line, triangular warning signs, road direction signs, finger posts, traffic islands and cross-hatched right-turn refuges, white paint in the throat of the junction, dropped kerbs, openings in hedges, gaps in lines of parked cars, even the roof of a cottage visible over the hedge - it WILL have a drive.
[A few days after I originally wrote this article, I added the following first-hand experience.]
Well... deja vu moment or what...
Having written this, there I was, zipping down a nice bit of road, slower car ahead, good straight coming up just around the next right-hand corner... I open up the view, it's clear... but...
I catch a glimpse of something silver to the left just as I move out to start the pass... and abort...
Just as well, because right in front of the car I was about to pass, out pulls a driver in a powerful Mercedes from a well-hedged driveway. He turns right and accelerates hard into what would have been my path had I continued with the manoeuvre.
I'm glad I was out of the way!
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