Spend time on single-lanes road in the UK, and you will inevitably come up behind a slower-moving vehicle. Whether it’s a learner driver, a heavy lorry struggling up a hill, an elderly woman on her way to church in her ancient Rover, or a tractor chugging along at a snail’s pace, there comes a time when you need to pull out and pass the car in front.
What you will also notice, if you spend time on single-lane roads anywhere in the world, is that a lot of drivers are really poor at overtaking slower vehicles. Most seem to put absolutely no forethought into what they are doing, and simply put their foot down as they reach for the indicator and pull across the road all at the same time – and then often change their mind and have to swerve back again.
So, how should you go about overtaking another vehicle in front of you? Firstly, switch your brain on and think about what you’re trying to achieve, then follow this process.
1. Do I really need to overtake this car?
How many times have you seen a driver go charging past a slower car, only to then hit the brakes and leave the road at the next junction or petrol station a minute later? That driver has literally saved nothing but a few seconds off their trip time, but has increased the risk for themselves and other road users, wasted fuel, added some extra wear to their brake pads and tyres, and generally looked like a fool. All to save a few seconds.
If you know that you are going to be leaving the road shortly, do everyone a favour and stay behind the car in front.
2. Plan your overtaking move
A successful and safe overtaking maneouvre requires plenty of space for you to speed up, cross lanes, pass the car in front, cross back over and return to your normal speed. So you need a fairly long stretch of straight road to do the job properly. Trying to pass another car on a road with limited space and visibility is a potential disaster.
You also need to factor in your own car’s performance. If you don’t have a very powerful motor, or you are loaded up with passengers and luggage, or the road is uphill or into a headwind, then you are going to need more space to get up to speed and overtake safely.
Look ahead of the car you intend to overtake – is there another car in front of it, and if so, is there enough room for you to safely pull back in between them? You should never try to overtake two or more cars in one go, regardless of how good you think you might be!
Also make sure you look at the line markings – solid lines banning overtaking are always there for a reason, even if it’s not obvious. There may well be a hidden danger you can’t see from a distance, such as a crest or hidden driveway, so the line markings must be respected at all times. If you can’t complete the overtaking manouevre before the lines change, it’s not on.
3. Getting ready to overtake
There is no point trying to overtake the car in front if you are jammed up behind it with no ability to accelerate to a speed faster than he/she is going before you pull out. If you pull out now, you are sitting on the wrong side of the road and going no faster than the car in front. You need to drop back to allow yourself plenty of space for your ‘run-up’ before pulling across to the opposite side of the road.
Keep an eye on your rear view mirrors – if a car behind sees you dropping back then they may try to pass you while you’re getting ready to pass the car in front, which could be disastrous. As you drop back, start indicating so that anyone following you can see that you are about to start your overtaking move. Don’t leave your indication until you’ve already started – remember “mirror, signal, manouevre” in that order. Give the car behind you a clear idea of what you’re doing, rather than making them guess. If the car in front of you is paying attention, they will also realise that you are about to come past and will hopefully be cooperative.
You’ve checked that the road is safe for overtaking, you’ve dropped back from the car in front and you’ve indicated that you’re changing lanes, so it’s time to get on with it.
Keep checking the road ahead as you go, as well as your rear view mirror. If you spot an oncoming car, or there is someone behind you trying to overtake you as you go to overtake the car in front, you need to be able to bail out of your manouevre and get safely back onto the correct side of the road.
Be decisive and accelerate firmly while still in your lane. There is no point trying to pass the car in front if you’re only doing 1mph more than him – the less time you spend on the opposite side of the road, the better. Build up your speed and steer smoothly across to the opposite side of the road as you come up behind the car in front. You should be travelling several mph faster than the car ahead to get past quickly and safely.
5. Keep going well after you have passed the slower vehicle
Keep accelerating until you are well past the slower vehicle. Too many people take their foot off the gas too early, slowing you down again before you have safely completed the manouevre and usually still on the wrong side of the road. Now is not the time to have second thoughts about the speed limit or the price of the fuel that you are burning – keep going until you are well past the overtaken car and clear to move back across the road.
6. Pulling back into your lane
Far too many drivers are absolutely rubbish at this important point in the overtaking process. Having got their car a length ahead of the other vehicle, they chop back across into the lane and directly into the path of the overtaken vehicle. Don’t be one of those idiots; complete the move properly.
As a general rule, don’t start to pull back across into your lane until you can see the entire overtaken car in your central rear view mirror (the inside one). If you pull across right in front of them and then have to hit your brakes suddenly, they will have nowhere to go except right into the back of you.
Get well ahead of the slower car and then smoothly pull back across. Don’t lift off the accelerator until AFTER you are safely back in your lane. Ease back on the accelerator to return to your cruising speed.
As inevitable as the slow-moving vehicle in front of you is the faster-moving vehicle behind you. Regardless of how fast you’re driving, at some stage someone faster will loom large in your mirrors and be looking to overtake you.
When being overtaken, it’s important to cooperate with the car coming past – for your own safety as well as theirs and anyone else around. Don’t try and stop them overtaking, and don’t suddenly slow down. It is important that you behave consistently so that the other car knows what you are doing.
If you see a car in your mirrors and it’s getting ready to overtake (or has already started), maintain your current speed. Don’t speed up to try and keep them behind you, as it probably won’t change their decision and it will only make things more dangerous. Don’t start slowing down either, because if they need to bail out during the overtaking process they might not be able to pull back in behind you. If you have an impatient driver behind you and you want to let them past, you should reduce your speed before they start to make their move, not after they are already accelerating to pass.
Once the overtaking car has got ahead of you, you can ease off your accelerator and make sure they have plenty of space to pull back across, but not while they are still coming up behind or alongside your car.
This article specifically talks about single-lane roads, where the danger of oncoming traffic is an important factor. However, overtaking on a dual carriageway or motorway follows basically the same process other than worrying about anyone coming at you head-on.
It’s hard to believe that an article about an everyday driving manouevre can be this long or have so many steps to remember, but then that’s the point. Most drivers overtake without really thinking about what they’re doing, unless it starts going wrong – and by then, it’s often too late.
The key things to remember about overtaking are simple:
1) Do you really need to overtake?
2) Plan your move
3) Move decisively
Enjoy your driving, and stay safe out there :)