How to overtake safely

Carlton Boyce / 16 September 2015

Overtaking can be dangerous if it isn't done properly. Stay safe on the roads with our simple three step guide to overtaking.



Overtaking seems to have become a bad thing. I’m not sure when and how this happened but the roads now seem to be full of drivers who believe their role in life is to flash anyone who has the temerity to overtake a slower vehicle on a public road, no matter how safe the manoeuvre was.

While there is no doubt that overtaking can be dangerous - it isn’t if it is done properly.

Roadcraft: The Police Driver's Handbook, the advanced driving handbook used by every police force in the UK, examines overtaking in detail and splits the process into three distinct sections, which it calls the Overtaking Triangle.

We’ll consider each of the three points in turn, but first:

To overtake or to not overtake, that is the question

Before you do anything else, you need to find out whether it is safe and appropriate to overtake.

You’ll need to hang back a little way from the vehicle in front to give you the best possible view of the road ahead.

Some of the things you are looking for include:

  • Will overtaking the vehicle in front cause you to exceed the speed limit? If so, you don’t need to overtake, do you?

  • Is overtaking justified? If it’s only going to gain one or two places in a queue of traffic should you bother? Is it worth the risk?

  • Is the way ahead clear? By that I don’t just mean clear of oncoming traffic: are there any side roads coming up on the right? Houses, into which the driver might turn? Bends, hollows in the road or other topographical features that would make overtaking dangerous? Is anyone overtaking you?

  • Is there enough space in front of the car you want to overtake to allow you to pull in safely?

  • One tip is to look for shadows too; you can sometimes spot a smaller car or motorcycle up ahead by its shadow well before you can actually see it in full.

Once you have decided to overtake, and that it is safe to do so, you will move into the Overtaking Position, the first stage of the Overtaking Triangle.

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The Overtaking Position

At this point you’ll be sitting behind the slower vehicle at a safe distance (remember the ‘Two Second Rule’?) and have decided the way ahead is clear and that overtaking it is safe and appropriate.

Now you’ll need to:

  • Select an appropriate gear to give you maximum torque and acceleration. The gear should (in a perfect world) allow you to complete the overtaking manoeuvre without having to change up to a higher gear.

  • Check your mirrors again to make sure no one is overtaking you. A quick glance over your shoulder will make sure you’ve checked the blind spot your mirrors don’t cover.

  • If it’s clear, you now pull out into the middle of the road and into the opposite carriageway. This gives you even better visibility and allows for a second check that it is safe to continue with the overtake.

  • If it’s not clear, you can just pull back into your lane safely and without having to brake or inconvenience anyone else.

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The Take-Off Position

No, nothing to do with flying, this is the position at which you are starting to commit to the overtaking manoeuvre.

  • You’ve checked that it’s safe to proceed, so indicate right at this time to let other road users know that you intend to overtake.

  • Accelerate smoothly but firmly; at this point there is still time to cancel the overtake if you see something that could present a hazard.

  • Once you draw level with the vehicle you are committed to seeing the move through. You should be accelerating strongly at this point, although still taking care to make sure you don’t exceed the speed limit…

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The Return Position

You are now safely past the slower vehicle and the danger is almost over. Now, all that’s left to do is return to your side of the road:

  • Check your mirrors to make sure that you aren’t cutting in too soon and won’t force the slower vehicle to brake.

  • Cancel your right-turn indicator but there is no need to indicate left unless you are telling other road users something that isn’t obvious. If you think it might help, then feel free to do so but if you’ve planned and executed it all properly there shouldn’t be a need.

  • Steer your car into your side of the road smoothly and in a straight line.

  • Adjust your speed to the conditions and change into a higher gear when appropriate.

That’s all there is to it. It might sound a bit long-winded but it really isn’t and practice makes perfect; happy overtaking!

For more tips and useful information, browse our motoring articles.


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