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Overtaking, lifesavers and following distances

My position on ANY technique that we use whilst on the bike is that it should IMPROVE safety by reducing risk. Or to put it another way, if a technique increases our exposure to risk it's worth asking if we should be using it. Overtaking is inherently high risk. However good we are, we can only reduce those risks, we cannot make overtaking 'safe'. Think about it. It's about the only accident we'd ever accelerate into. But we're also involving other human beings, and humans don't always behave predictably. Ovetakes often go wrong when the driver we're planning on passing does something we didn't expect. And now we're carrying a lot of speed. And of course, no matter how fast we think we are, there's always someone quicker. And they might just possibly be planning on ovetaking too. We need up to date situational awareness before we commit ourselves to an overtake.

A regular 'advanced riding' debate is: "should the rider perform a 'lifesaver' before pulling out to pass another vehicle?"

As with any question like that, the answer revolves around what we're attempting to achieve. As explained in another article, the 'lifesaver' is a final over-the-shoulder blind spot check that we make before moving sideways into a position where there might possibly be another vehicle.

The debate hinges on whether or not we can rely fully on what is sometimes called 'mirror history'. The theory is that if we check our mirrors often enough, we'll have spotted another vehicle catching us, and we'll know that there is nothing in our blindspot.

Here's the issue as I see it. Here's the upside. If we DO check, and there's something there, we can abort our manoeuvre. And if there's nothing there, we've taken our eyes off the road ahead for a second or so to take the look. Does that really matter? Not unless we're very close to the vehicle ahead, or we're trying to squeeze the pass into the tightest possible opportunity.

But what if we're relying on the mirrors? However often we look in the mirror it can only tell us what's behind us, not what's alongside in the blind spot.If we spotted something in the mirrors, then we abort the manoeuvre. But if we didn't spot the vehicle in one or more of our mirror checks, WE DON'T KNOW IT'S THERE. Now the danger is that we commit ourselves into the overtake and put ourselves at risk.

The real problem is that we have limited attention, and the busier the road gets, the less likely we are to make our mirror checks frequent enough to fill in information about what's catching us from behind. 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."

In essence, I agree. 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. Positions of vehicles change very fast and we need up-to-the-minute situational awareness, and it's debateable whether mirrors alone can ever provide this.

Look at it this way. We wouldn't rely on three or four glimpes of the road through a tall hedge before deciding it was safe to drive straight out of a minor road. We'd take a final look before committing ourselves. Mirror checks give us the rearward equivalent of these glimpses. Only a shoulder check can show us directly what is actually IN the blind spot.

On a single carriageway, at least we know where the danger's coming from - behind us. But on multilane roads, it could be from either side. In the middle lane, a vehicle will come up fast on the nearside, then swoop across behind us, switching to the outside lane. There's a significant risk that any checks in the right mirror will not have spotted this vehicle. Even if we've made mirror checks to the nearside, it's unlikely we've spotted what's happening unless we look at just the right moment. This can also happen as we pass the 'on ramp' on a motorway or dual carriageway. And drivers also move up into, then sit in the blind spot so we can't see them either in the mirror or peripheral vision. The only way to see is via a blind spot check. In either case, all that's needed is a quick 'chin-to-shoulder' glance into the blind spot before we commit ourselves.

So if looking into the blind spot can only have positive effects on our situational awareness, what's the objection?

"It's potentially dangerous if the car ahead suddenly slows down."

That's easily answered. If the car ahead slowing down instantly puts us at risk, we're too close. No arguments. No "if's", "but's" or "maybe's". If the car ahead slows and we are instantly put at risk, it doesn't matter where we're looking - it could have been in the mirror. We should have been further back, no matter we're looking to be in the 'overtaking' position. If we can't look away from the car's brake lights, we are too close. And what's less obvious is that if we're in the least bit worried about running into the car ahead, we're not going to be giving our overtaking planning full attention! It's a form of target fixation.

"A lifesaver takes too long."

Someone once quoted two seconds as "the time it takes to look behind". That shows a bit of a misunderstanding about WHERE we're looking. There's more about this in another tip, but we're only looking into the blind area, not 'behind'. If we combine our final mirror check (and you ARE going to make one, aren't you?) with the over-the-shoulder lifesaver, it doesn't actually take all that much longer than the mirror check alone - try it.

You may see it as a 'belt and braces' approach, and you might argue that if we've got a good belt, we don't need braces. Maybe, but belts do slip and then we might be very glad to have the braces to hold our trousers up.

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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