How to Overtake Safely

The chances are your motorbike is the fastest thing on the road, so you'll need to know how to overtake safely

With the acceleration of a supercar and less than a quarter of the road profile, overtaking on a motorcycle is easy peasy. It's a way of motorcycling life: during an average car journey you'll be lucky to get a single overtaking opportunity; on a motorcycle you'll have plenty. It's what gets you to work on time everyday, without fail - regardless of traffic.

Well, unless things go wrong. And on a motorcycle, when things go wrong, they go very, very wrong. Hit a moving obstacle head-on and the speed of impact = speed of oncoming vehicle + speed of your motorcycle. So if the car's travelling at 60mph and you're doing 80mph, you'll be meeting at 140mph. Unprotected. But a lot of the time it's the very machine you're overtaking that sends both you and your bike into orbit.

The good news is that staying in one piece doesn't have to mean sitting behind a slow coach with the four-wheeled crowd. After all, plods on bikes engage in high-speed overtaking pursuits all the time with few accidents to write home about. They preach the art of road positioning, observation and interpretation, from the Motorcycle Roadcraft Police Rider's Handbook. To be fair, this has as much shite advice as good advice in it - and the best police riders take information from all sources, not just one book.

We've gathered our advice from one of the good 'uns: Thames Valley Police's Gary Baldwin, who also heads up advanced riding school Rapid Training. "Overtakes don't just happen, they are planned," explains Gary. "And that planning starts the moment a vehicle appears in front of you."

There are different kinds of overtaking situations: for example if you are catching a vehicle on an empty, open road with a clear view ahead, it may be safe to approach and overtake in one continuous manoeuvre. In this case, you position yourself to the offside (to the right in the UK) to overtake the vehicle ahead, adjust your speed, select the most responsive gear for the speed, accelerate and once the overtake is complete, decelerate smoothly to slip into the gap you identified BEFORE you pulled out.

Keep it clean and fluid - never force other road users to alter their course or speed. And try to leave at least a car door space between you and the vehicle you're passing as it could swerve or, as Gary puts it:
"If you're constipated, the sight of the driver's door blocking your path is an effective cure!"

But where hazards and obscured views prevail, you will need to follow the vehicle you're looking to overtake until it is safe to go. "We must put ourselves in a position where we can see," says Gary. "Don't get too close to the vehicle in front or you end up closing your view. Look up the inside if necessary - if the road goes slightly to the left, that's where the view is." Look through the vehicle's windscreen if this increases your field of vision.

There is no prescribed distance to this following position; it's simply the closest position to the vehicle in front that gives an adequate view of the road ahead. And never overtake where your view is obscured, for instance on a blind bend or brow of hill. So what dangers are we looking for?

"Check for any form of junction, entrance or lay-by either side of the vehicle in front," says Gary. Getting T-boned by the car you're about to overtake turning right into a junction is the oldest 'off' in the book, and even if you can prove the driver wasn't indicating or looking you'll still be held partly liable. Or a vehicle may pull out of a nearside (in the UK that's to your left) junction in front of the vehicle you're overtaking; both yours and his views will be obscured and it's another guaranteed T-bone.

Be aware where there's a box or chevrons in the middle of the road for oncoming traffic to wait before turning into a nearside junction. A vehicle may decide to use it just as you decide to go for your overtake and accelerate to cross it. Ouch. In the case of a lay-by either side of the road, a car may pull out suddenly and obstruct your route. Overtaking safely is a question of being aware of the potential danger scenarios, interpreting correctly what's going on around you and acting accordingly. "With the amount of performance that we have on tap," says Gary, "is waiting 10 metres to clear a junction such a big deal?"


Never overtake at the approach of a blind corner, or even at a corner you can see through as your view may be obscured by roadside furniture. However, by using good road positioning you can get the best view through a corner to help you prepare your overtake as soon as you've cleared the bend.

Overtaking Guide

"And on a licence/ self preservation note, however safe you consider it is to slip across a solid white line, don't! What the copper sees is a rider saying 'I know this is a dangerous area, but I don't care' - you won't get away with a caution. And from an accident reconstruction point of view, it turns a Careless Driving charge into a Dangerous Driving one - and that can mean crap food and dubious sexual practices for a few months."

And last but not least, know where you're going: if you can't see a space to slip into on the other side, don't assume one will materialise once you get there - you'd be lucky.

So how about rear observation? "Don't look over your shoulder - use your mirrors," replies Gary. "You should have been checking them regularly enough to know what's there, and if you look over your shoulders when you're close to the car in front you won't have time to react if the unexpected happens."

Indicating to overtake is generally a waste of time, according to Gary. "The last student I followed who did this was riding a Kawasaki ZX-9R. I counted one flash of the indicator and the overtake had been completed. Who was supposed to see that? It's just stating the obvious. If no one will benefit, don't bother.
If you need to indicate, it's usually for the benefit of oncoming traffic or any one following who may be looking to overtake you," i.e. when you're overtaking in a stream of traffic, or when you're riding in a group with mates behind you.

While we're on the subject of group riding, don't assume that just because your mate is overtaking ahead you can follow his lead. He's probably obscuring your view and your timing may be out: there may be only just enough time for his bike to clear oncoming traffic, or the gap he's aiming for may not be big enough for two and even slam shut in your face. Ride for yourself - but do move over to the left if your mate is following you into the gap; he'll need space too.

If you're overtaking a line of vehicles, the chances are you'll be taking several at a time so you need to pre-empt the possible actions of several drivers. Position yourself to the right of your lane. This will give you a better view of the road and let you find a return gap in the line of cars. "When you reach the first return gap you may not need to enter it," says Gary. "If it's safe, hold the offside position to assess the possibility of further overtaking."

Gary adds: "When you come back to the nearside lane, it must be under smooth deceleration. As you go out, accelerate, but come off the gas alongside the last vehicle so you can lose your speed and mould back into the traffic." Diving into a gap and slamming the brakes on is dangerous and a sure-fire way to piss off the guy behind you.

And car drivers don't understand when we can overtake safely, so try not to scare or upset them. It's easy to do: "Try not to swoop in and out with gusto - it looks dangerous, like you don't know what you're doing," says Gary.

Unless you're filtering, never pass a vehicle on the inside (undertake), even if the bugger's blocking
traffic by sitting pointlessly in the fast lane. Flashing your headlight at him might work, but it's technically a no-no as far as the Highway Code is concerned. It's always tempting to go for that undertake and get back on the pace, but it is illegal. And if you're on the outside lane of a roundabout, be wary of cars positioned on the inside lane; they could suddenly spot their exit and make a dive for it.

When you're overtaking, the advice is keep it smooth and controlled. "Overtakes are not a percentage game," says Gary. "They are either 100% or don't go. When in doubt, bottle out."