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How to Overtake Safely (and Legally)

We’ve all been there, trying to get home after a long day at work to find yourself stuck behind someone doing 35 in a 50. While you’re getting more and more frustrated you may think about just flooring it and driving round them – but how do you make sure that any overtaking move you attempt is not only safe, but legal? Let Scrap Car Comparison talk you through all you need to know.

A car overtakes a truck on a road in the countryside

Can you ever overtake a vehicle on the left? 

The Highway Code states: “Do not overtake on the left or move to a lane on your left to overtake.” However, that is only an advisory, and not a punishable offence. While under “normal” driving conditions, undertaking is not an acceptable action, but should you find yourself in congestion, where lanes are moving at similar speeds, then it is acceptable to undertake if the lane you’re in is moving faster than a lane on the right. 

There are a few other instances where the Highway Code states that it would be permissible to pass a car on the left:

  • On motorways where average speed cameras are in operation.
  • On motorways displaying “stay in lane” on the overhead gantries. It may be safer to pass a vehicle on the left if your lane is moving faster, which would be safer than weaving in and out of traffic.
  • If a car is turning right or performing a U-turn. In this instance, you should take caution when undertaking not to do it too soon, and wait until the vehicle has indicated and started to turn before passing.

If your decision to ‘overtake on the left’, or ‘undertake’, a fellow motorist is deemed to have put others in danger however, then this could be considered driving without due care and attention and attract a penalty.

When should you not overtake?

As frustrating as it may be to get stuck behind a slower moving vehicle, there are a range of situations where overtaking simply shouldn’t be attempted.

  • Poor weather: If you’re driving along in heavy rain and thick fog, you should also exercise caution even without taking into account the addition of trying to overtake another car. You are also unlikely to be able to see safely in front of you, making any overtaking manoeuvre incredibly difficult and dangerous.
  • Can’t see the road clearly: While this may seem like a repeat of the second part of the reason above, it’s sadly an obvious reason not to overtake that often gets ignored. Overtaking on a blind corner, over a hump bridge or on the brow of a hill is, plain and simple, madness. If you can’t see the road ahead, you have absolutely no idea what’s there – it’s always sensible to assume that something is. If there isn’t, oh well, there’ll be an opportunity later. If there is, you’re not just putting yourself at risk, but the driver of the car coming towards you and also the car you’re overtaking. Play it safe, and stay behind for a little longer.
  • Road markings forbid it: Road markings are there for a reason, and if there is a solid white line or hatchings on the road, overtaking should not even enter your mind. This is extra important if it’s a road you don’t know, as even if the road itself looks relatively safe, there may be a hazard you can’t see waiting for you around the corner.
  • Road signs forbid it: Like the road markings themselves, road signs can also tell you when you aren’t allowed to make overtaking manoeuvres. If you see a red circle with two cars, the left coloured black, and the right coloured red, as displayed below, that is the “no overtaking” sign, and means that you could be pulled over for attempting an overtaking move.
  • Approaching a hazard: If you’re approaching a junction, a school crossing, a level crossing, a narrow road or a set of roadworks. In any of these situations, the amount of time you’ll gain by jumping in front of someone is minimal when compared to the increase in danger of your move. Remember you have to take into account everything you can’t see, whether that’s road workers, children or a closing level crossing gate, and it’s never worth the risk.
  • If the vehicle ahead is indicating right: If a vehicle is indicating right, even if their road position suggests they won’t be turning, you must not attempt an overtake. It is up to you to overtake safely, and if the car is indicating and begins to turn right, it will be entirely your fault if they turn in on you. They warned you, and you ignored that warning.

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How and when to safely overtake vehicles

Overtaking can be an incredibly dangerous act while on the road – you’re driving on the wrong side of the road and into the path of potential oncoming traffic, so making sure you’ve taken every precaution possible is paramount.

Firstly, make sure that the move you’re looking to make is really necessary. Yes, it can be annoying to be stuck behind someone driving slowly, but is it really worth making a potentially dangerous overtake to save one or two minutes by the time you get to where you need to go?

Secondly ask yourself if it’s really a safe decision to be overtaking on this particular stretch of road. Do the road markings suggest danger ahead? Are there road signs forbidding you from passing another motorist? Or, more simply, can you actually see the road ahead clearly enough to be able to judge that you can safely make it past the slower car and back into your own lane before putting yourself or another driver in serious danger? If any of these go against the idea of overtaking, then it’s best to sit back and wait for somewhere more suitable, or until you or the other car turns off the road. Likewise, if the car in front of you has made it past a slower car safely, do not assume that you’ll be able to follow suit. There could be anything hidden by the car ahead of you and as soon as they return to their own lane, you could have an unwelcome surprise.

Before you decide to move out of your lane to pass a slower car, consider the performance of your own set of wheels, particularly if you’re driving up a hill. If your car is lacking a bit of poke or not quite got the torque to pull you up that hill quickly, the overtaking move suddenly becomes much more dangerous and the risk factor goes through the roof. 

When you are in the opposite lane, make sure you accelerate firmly, but safely, and get the move done as quickly as possible to return to your own lane. However, make sure that you don’t cut up the driver you’re overtaking. An easy way of ensuring you leave enough space to pull back in is to wait until you can see the car you’re overtaking clearly in your rear view mirror, and then gently merge back into your own lane.

How to safely overtake cyclists

The Highway Code was updated at the start of 2022 with new guidance on how to safely pass cyclists, suggesting that you should now leave at least 1.5 metres (5 feet) when overtaking people cycling at speeds of up to 30mph. If you are travelling faster than 30mph you should give even more space.

How to safely overtake animals

Overtaking animals, particularly horse riders or horse-drawn carriages, requires extra caution, as you want to make sure that you do not spook the horse. Horse riders regularly ride in double file when escorting young or inexperienced horses or riders, so it’s important to give them plenty of room and drive slowly. The highway code suggests that you drive to a maximum speed of 10mph and allow at least 2 metres of space while passing. Do not sound your horn or rev your engine as this could scare the horse, and always pay attention to signals from the rider. The same is for any wild, or domestic, animals that may be on the road. Approach with caution and make no sudden moves that could scare the creature and potentially cause you to inadvertently hit them.

A convoy of horse riders walk in a line down a woodland road

What to consider when overtaking at night

Overtaking at night can be an incredibly tricky experience, with the lack of light creating an additional hazard on top of everything else you have to be wary of during the day – except this time you might not be able to see them. While most urban roads will be well lit, it is unlikely you’ll be making overtaking moves through towns, and the roads where you’re more likely to be wanting to get past a slower driver are unlikely to have street lamps. While it could be easier to see oncoming traffic thanks to their headlights, there’s no guarantee of that and you’re more likely to miss animals, pedestrians or hazards in the road, so it’s even more important to wait until a long, straight stretch of road with a clear view.

Don’t be tempted to put your full beams on to make yourself more visible as this will only dazzle other road users. If you are being overtaken, leave your headlights on full beam until the driver behind is alongside you as this will help them to overtake you safely.

When can you overtake on a one-way street

If driving on a one-way street, you are legally allowed to overtake on either side of the slower car. Make sure to keep checking your mirrors for the entirety of your manoeuvre, and keep your eyes on everything around you just to ensure that it is clear before you make your move. 

Why is it dangerous to overtake at a junction?

As we’ve alluded to multiple times in this article, overtaking is all about minimising risk and carrying out your move in the safest way, and safest place, possible. There are far too many variables when overtaking on or near a junction that make it impossible to tell if you’re going to be able to carry out the move safely. You simply don’t know if a car is going to pull out of the junction, turn into the junction, or anything for that matter. Waiting until you are clear of the junction and into a clear stretch of road will be safer for you and everyone else around you.

Are you looking for a car with a little more poke to be able to overtake that little bit easier? Say goodbye to your car today and use the cash as a deposit on a newer, faster car and minimise the time you need to be on the wrong side of the road. Scrap your car with Scrap Car Comparison and you’ll be guaranteed the very best price in the fastest way. Not only that, we’ll even come and collect the car from you, wherever you call home.

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