In the Highway Code rules 162 to 169 deal with the basics of overtaking. In this article we’ll quickly recap the basics, then cover some more advanced techniques and some additional considerations of risks involved when overtaking as given in Roadcraft (the UK police driving manual), and by advanced driving instructors.
Rule 162 covers the three most important aspects of overtaking. They are: to ensure that you have sufficient room to complete the overtaking manoeuvre, check there’s no one already overtaking you, and that there is a gap for you to return to your lane after you’ve overtaken the vehicle in front of you.
Rules 163 covers basic overtaking rules. In order to overtake you will need to check your mirrors and your blind spot, signal then make the pass quickly, giving the other vehicle plenty of room (particularly if it’s a cyclist).
You must give way to oncoming vehicles. If traffic is moving slowly in queues, stay in your lane.
You can overtake on the left if the vehicle ahead is signalling to turn right and there’s room to do so, or if a traffic queue on your right is moving more slowly than you are.
Rule 164 details special difficulties with overtaking large vehicles, including lorries, agricultural vehicles and vehicles towing large trailers. If you get too close to them, they may not be able to see you, and your view of the road ahead will be obscured. Make sure you have the extra room required to pass, and don’t follow another vehicle passing a long vehicle in case they abort and have to pull back in.
Rule 165 tells you when you are not permitted to overtake. You are not allowed to cross a solid white line if it is the line nearest to you, or if you have to enter an area designated to divide traffic if it’s surrounded by a solid white line (a ‘median strip’ for example). You must not overtake if you have passed a No Overtaking sign, or if you have to enter a lane reserved for another type of vehicle (e.g. a bus, tram or cycle) during its hours of operation. Finally, if a vehicle ahead of you has stopped at a pedestrian crossing, you must not overtake it.
Rule 166 deals with scenarios where you may have doubts. If you can’t see ahead because there’s a corner, hump bridge, a brow, or a dip in the road where you can’t see the bottom of the dip, don’t overtake.
Rule 167 outlines where you might come into conflict with other road users, and shouldn’t overtake, for example:
- where the road narrows
- between the kerb and a bus or tram when it is at a stop
- if you would force another road user to swerve, brake or stop
- when another road user is indicating right, even if you think that they have forgotten to cancel the signal
- if you are following a cyclist approaching a junction or roundabout and you intend to turn left (which will cut the cyclist off)
- when approaching any kind of junction where another road joins from the left or right
- when approaching a school crossing patrol
- when approaching a level crossing
Rules 168 and 169 give you good etiquette for when you are being overtaken. Maintain a steady course and speed. If the driver overtaking you seems to be taking a risk, slow down to let the vehicle pass more quickly. Drop back to maintain a two-second gap when the vehicle pulls in front of you. If you are driving slowly, do not hold up a long queue of traffic. Pull over frequently to let other road users past so that they don’t get frustrated and try to overtake in dangerous places.
Knowing the capabilities of your vehicle
The amount of acceleration your vehicle has is the main influencing factor in how long it will take to get past a vehicle. If you have a lot of power and can accelerate quickly you will spend less time exposed to danger on the other side of the road. It’s important that you know the acceleration characteristics of your vehicle, especially if you are overtaking uphill.
You will also need to be aware of the length and width of your vehicle and the impacts of any additional weight you are carrying. If you are towing a trailer or caravan, or are laden with people and luggage (or, if in a lorry, you’re pulling a heavy load) it will take you longer to overtake, and it will impact on your acceleration. Be careful if your trailer is wider than your car! Some trailers can be a foot wider either side of your vehicle and while you think you’re leaving plenty of room for a cyclist as your car goes by, remember that your trailer will be closer.
Getting into the right position for overtaking
The overtaking position is closer to the vehicle in front than the two-second rule. For this reason, it’s more dangerous because if the vehicle in front brakes heavily or stops quickly, you risk running into the back of it. Technically, the overtaking position is tailgating. However, it serves several purposes
- It lets the driver in front of you know that you want to overtake
- It lets drivers behind you know that you want to overtake, and therefore they’re less likely to start overtaking you
- It shortens the time exposed to danger because you have less distance to travel to get past the vehicle.
If you are too close to the vehicle in front then you will also have a restricted view of the road ahead, and you may also be in the blind spot of larger vehicles such as lorries, agricultural vehicles and vehicles towing large trailers.
If you follow too close for too long you also risk annoying the driver ahead, who will think you are tailgating. They might react by slowing down, which will impede your progress further (although it will ultimately make it quicker to pass), or they may speed up slightly which will make it more difficult to pass.
Considering other road users
Cyclists can be wobbly on the road, particularly in strong winds. Child cyclists are more prone to this. Give cyclists a lot of room and be especially aware of the effects of your vehicle’s slipstream, and how your vehicle might temporarily shield a cyclist from a side wind causing them to swerve. In really strong winds, your vehicle may be blown into the path of the vehicle you are overtaking, especially if you are riding a motorbike, or driving a high-sided vehicle such as a light van or lorry.
With a horse, it’s better not to cause any noise that might spook it, so if you have a particularly loud vehicle, take it easy on the accelerator as you pass, and never use your horn. Turn your stereo down, too. If a horse does seem like it becomes agitated, brake gently to a stop and wait for the rider to regain control.
You should never overtake a vehicle that’s overtaking another vehicle, unless it’s a three-lane carriageway with all the lanes travelling in your direction, i.e a motorway. For example, if a car is overtaking a cyclist you should not be overtaking it at the same time as it significantly reduces the margin of error for all three of you. This is something to watch for when you are planning your overtaking move.
When you are planning your passing manoeuvre, look as far up the road as possible and check for the following hazards
- Parked vehicles
- Pedestrians (especially children)
- Pets and other animals
- Sun strike/sun dazzle that might happen as you get alongside the vehicle, or if the road curves as you are overtaking, or if the sun would come from behind an obstacle such as a hill or line of buildings
- Standing water
- Approaching roadworks
- Approaching speed limit changes, e.g. from 60mph to 30mph as you enter a village
- Farm gates and driveways
- Dips and crests
- The general road condition
You will also need to know where you can pull in, especially if there’s a line of traffic to overtake. Use other cues to help you determine which way the road bends such as the line of street lights, or trees.
Be aware of motorists attempting to pass you, particularly motorcyclists that are more difficult to see but will often have the additional acceleration required to make quick passing manoeuvres.
Overtaking on bends
You can only overtake on a bend if you can see all the way through the corner. It is easier to do this on a right-hand bend because with a left-hand bend the vehicle in front will always create a blind spot on the bend where you can’t see the other lane.
You can use the slightly slower speed of a bend to your advantage by overtaking on the exit if you are in a car or motorbike. This is more effective when overtaking heavy vehicles that may need to slow down more. However, bear in mind that all vehicles exiting a corner will be accelerating onto the straight, so your vehicle will need enough acceleration to get past. The advantage comes with the differential between the acceleration of a large, heavy vehicle, and a car or motorbike. You may be able to hang back slightly before the corner and use your superior cornering speed to close the gap at the right time to give you extra speed when you pull out to overtake. Be prepared to abort the attempt, though.
Overtaking cyclists, motorcyclists and scooters
Avoid overtaking a cyclist, motorcyclist or scooter just before you turn left; you might misjudge your overtaking manoeuvre and cut them off.
Cyclists sometimes move to the left before turning right if they don’t feel comfortable in the middle of the road. If a cyclist has moved right to turn right, overtake them on the left only if there’s enough room to do it safely.
Scooter and motorbike riders will move around in their lane more when there are obstacles such as uneven surfaces and potholes, and slippery surfaces such as manhole covers. They could also be blown off course if there are strong crosswinds. Take care when overtaking that you give them enough room, and be aware of your slipstream if you are driving a large vehicle.
If you are waiting at a junction to turn left and a cyclist moves up on the inside of your vehicle, or a motorbike or scooter filters through in front of you on your left, wait for them to go before you make your turn.
What speed should you go when overtaking?
The Highway Code is clear that you should not exceed the speed limit. Even though it may be technically safer to do so in order to reduce your time exposed to danger, speed limits are absolute measures and can be enforced. If a vehicle is doing 67mph and you want to overtake to do 70mph, but you speed up to 78mph to get past, and then get caught, there is an argument that 67mph is not obstructing general traffic flow, i.e. it’s making good progress. So, however annoying this is for you, we recommend that you don’t speed to overtake a vehicle.
Do you know all the rules for motorway driving? Most people don’t. Find out whether you do here in our free Highway Code quiz about motorways.
Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.