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Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Back in 2005 and 2006, one of the best series of articles on advanced riding techniques was penned by Andy Morrison from Rapid Training, and published in Bike magazine. But when he talked about the technique of overtaking in left-handers in February 2006, I think he went the proverbial 'bridge too far'. He stated plainly enough that it's dangerous but then goes on to assert that it's a manoeuvre within the grasp of the expert rider. The article gave the impression that all that's needed is a high level of technical skill and judgement yet whatever dissenting voices might say, there is something every one of us should understand: contrary to claims elsewhere, overtaking is NEVER, EVER 'safe'. Even if we can be reasonably sure WE won't make a mistake, when overtaking there are always other humans involved and one thing we can be sure of is that humans can and DO make errors. An overtake ALWAYS exposes us to the risk of someone else's mistake.
I read the article and the first thing that struck me was that it focused on technical execution. Yet to my mind, understanding that the skills to carry out a tricky overtake are complex is far less important than developing our understanding of risk and our ability to see that technically complicated manoeuvres are more likely to go wrong. It's our ability to make a realistic risk assessment that allows us to place a manoeuvre on the risk / benefit scale. To my mind, for a relatively limited benefit, this one is far over towords the risky end. We really need to understand the difference between 'need' and 'nice'.
Overtaking generally sits further towards the 'nice to do' end of the spectrum than the 'need to do' end - it's very rarely an absolute 'must-do'. You may have heard people say that "if I didn't overtake, I might as well not be on a bike", or that "I overtake because I want to demonstrate I can make progress".
Personally, I think they are deeply flawed reasons. My own thinking - based on that risk / benefit calculation - is that we need to balance the risks that might arise through making the overtake, with the risks of staying put. If there's no particular problem with following - for example, when moving in a steady stream of traffic - the less-risky option is nearly always choosing NOT to pass.
I'd suggest that overtaking only begins to move towards the 'need to do' end of the scale if sitting behind a vehicle puts us at greater risk than making the overtake. Maybe we're following a tractor on a rural road, when a queue of traffic begins to form behind us. If a relatively straightforward opportunity to pass arises and we don't take it, we are now part of the problem. The chances are that someone will try to overtake both the tractor and our bike. That makes the overtake more difficult for the driver, and potentially increases our own risk. So if we can see a way to set up an overtake in such a way to minimise the risk, does that tip the balance? Perhaps. The crux of the matter is "if we can see a way to set up an overtake in such a way to minimise the risk". Too many overtakes are assessed from the "what do I gain" perspective first, with risk trailing a very poor second.
And so we come to overtaking out of left-hand bend. Compared with setting up a pass out of a right-hand corner, overtaking out of a left hand bend generates a lot of "What ifs...?" that aren't easy to answer.
We start by setting up the overtake by sitting to the nearside, looking up the inside of the vehicle ahead. The article pointed out problems of dead ground (that is, the areas that are blind to our search) but however thorough our search, we need to be absolutely clear that if we cannot see over the vehicle, there's a blind spot ahead of it on the offside. As we move out to the right to commit to the pass, that blindspot doesn't go away - it simply moves. There is ALWAYS this blind spot.
Some years ago, I watched a rider set up exactly this pass around a sweeping left-hand bend from the car. His line-of-sight up the nearside was good, but he couldn't see what I could, thanks to my driving position offset to the right. It was the local postie climbing into his bright red post office van that was pulled up in a layby on the other side of the road. As the rider moved across behind the truck, the post office van started to move forward. The rider came out from behind the truck just as the PO van moved into the road.
And of course, if a vehicle could pull out, the one we're overtaking could turn in, and we may not be aware of the turning for the same reason. This is another point I always make - overtaking ALWAYS relies on the driver we're passing to do what we predict. Setting up an overtake where we're visible in the driver's interior or right-hand door mirror means that there's at least a chance the driver will know we're there. But sat to the nearside of the vehicle we're about to pass, not only are we far more difficult to see, few drivers would expect to find us overtaking around the outside a moment later. We really do need to hang back long enough to clear the view right along our path and eliminate any openings.
And there's a further problem. It's the pesky extra warning about making sure the road not just clear but that we can "expect it to remain clear". The neatly-drawn diagrams in the magazine showed how the rider would need to 'visually sweep' the road ahead of the lorry before attempting the overtake. Although the text talked about "far enough ahead" the diagrams showed a distance of just a couple of lorry-lengths. I know the diagrams were drawn distorted to make the point (rather like the ones showing how a wider position gives a better view in 'Motorcycle Roadcraft'), and Andy did mention the danger of meeting an oncoming car head-on, but what wasn't emphasised was just HOW far ahead we need to see.
Let's do a few quick sums. Let's assume the truck is travelling at 45 mph. That's 20 metres per second. Let's assume we pass the truck at 60 mph - we're thus travelling 15 mph faster than the truck (6.7 m/s). Assuming a typical HGV (16.5 metres long), it'll take us approximately 2.5 seconds to travel from front to rear. In that time - whilst we are riding at 60 mph or 27 m/s remember - we've travelled no less than 67.5 metres.
But of course, we have to move out and move back again. The total distance travelled during the entire manoeuvre is not going to be less than three times 67.5 metres, so to accelerate, pass and tuck back again, we're looking at a minimum total distance of around 200 metres.
Except we need treble this distance.
Why? What about the effect on other road users when we pop out from behind a truck and the oncoming driver suddenly sees us? Assuming the car is coming the other way at the same speed we're making the pass and we want to move out, make the pass, then manoeuvre back with a minimum MARGIN FOR ERROR between us, we actually need to COMPLETE the overtake in around one-third of the total "distance we can see to be clear". So the minimum distance we actually need FROM THE MOMENT WE COMMIT is AT LEAST 600 metres - that's over one-third of a mile. And we're now mentally juggling with speeds and distances at which the human brain struggles to make accurate computations.
Of course, to make up for the lack of forward view, the temptation is to nail it. But the faster we attempt to make the pass, the more difficult it is to bail out when it starts going wrong.
My take on this is not to hurry into such an overtake. We definitely shouldn't underestimate the the difficulties of seeing far enough ahead and the blind areas. Technical ability is NOT a substitute for sound judgement. In practice, I'd suggest only the shallowest left hand bends with the very best views allow a reasonably risk-free overtake past the slowest-moving vehicles, which brings us full-circle to whether an overtake is 'need' or 'nice'.
What was left pretty much unsaid was that a better opportunity will probably come along in a minute. I intensely dislike this 'take every available opportunity' approach to riding. It may be appropriate to police riding, but I doubt the validity for civvie riding, even at 'advanced' level.
Most of all, I was concerned at its publication in a magazine, where Andy had no control over the riders reading the article. It's an issue I'm very aware of when writing my own riding tips of my own, and even when delivering my own Survival Skills advanced motorcycle training courses. It's why each tip tends to have exhaustive discussions of the risks as well as an explanation of benefits.
Statistics show that around half of out-of-town fatalities result from overtakes that go wrong, so to my mind we should be eliminating the technically-tricky ones with the highest potential for going wrong. I'm certainly not going to say I've never overtaken in a left-hander but I can definitely say there have been a few times I wished I hadn't bothered.
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