How to overtake on country roads… the right way
Single-lane overtaking is about the most dangerous manoeuvre the average car driver will attempt, so here’s how to do it right.
Flick the indicator and put the foot down, right? Not quite. Performing an overtake might look easy, but there’s a lot more going on, and a lot that can go wrong.
This article is specific to the most difficult type of overtaking – high-speed overtaking at around 100-110km/h on a single-lane country road. However, some of the techniques are the same for other overtakes such as multi-lane freeway overtakes and low-speed suburban overtakes.
Skills you need for high-speed overtaking
Before you even begin your first overtake there are three skills you need to master:
Distance judging – You may need around 1km distance to overtake safely. It’s hard to judge that distance, so teach yourself. Next time you’re on the open road look well ahead and spot something far off; maybe a road sign, or a distinctive bend in the road. Quickly zero your trip meter and guess the distance. Then as you get to your point, see how close you were. Before long you’ll be pretty good at guessing distances.
You can also count the seconds from oncoming cars: if you’re doing 100km/h and so is approaching traffic, then that’s 200km/h closing speed, which is about 60 metres a second.
So, 60m x 5 seconds = 300m; 10 seconds = 600m; 15 seconds = 900m.
It’s not exact, but it’s useful.
Downshifting – You need to accelerate quickly past the car you’re overtaking. To do that you’ll need to change down maybe one to three gears. Most cars will cruise at 100km/h in top gear, which in a modern vehicle is sixth, seventh, ninth or even tenth. But you aren’t going to accelerate in that gear, so you need a lower one, particularly if you’re going to overtake uphill or are heavily loaded.
Automatics – Most of the modern cars just need a tap on the accelerator and off you go. But less powerful vehicles with slower-shifting transmissions, especially with a load, need to be manually shifted into a lower gear. Exactly how that is done varies from car to car, but generally, you’d shift the transmission into manual mode – if you have one – and select a lower gear. That could be fourth or third.
You can also force a downshift using the ‘kickdown’ feature when you press the accelerator to the floor, but it can take too much time in certain cars, and once you lift off, there’s the potential for the car to upshift at the wrong moment. Better to be locked into the right gear before the overtake begins than waste a precious second or three waiting for the car to react.
Manuals – Powerful cars may not need a downshift, but if you do, then depress the clutch, select your gear – usually fourth – bring the revs up, clutch up and there you are, ready to overtake. Practice the skill of up and downshifting at speed; you should be able to cruise at 100km/h and shift smoothly from 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th gears in any order. For example, 6th to 3rd, or 3rd to 5th. If you can’t do that, then you’re not ready to overtake. This is known as ‘skip shifting’ – more on that here.
Looking ahead and reading the situation – This is the key to almost all driving techniques, and lots of other skills too. You will not overtake safely if you can’t assess road conditions and predict driver behaviour. You can learn to do this by looking well ahead, past the car(s) in front, and seeing if you can predict what they’ll do; when they will move out, brake, overtake. You know you’ve got this right when you’re consistently reacting to things in front of them before they are. And you also need to do the same for cars behind; try and predict when you’ll be overtaken, for example.
The first question: should I even overtake?
Consider overtaking as a bonus, something you do if you can, not something you always assume can be done.
Often it’s just not safely possible, so you have no choice but to hang back or maybe take that break you were thinking about. If you must overtake, then see when then next overtaking lane is coming up, or perhaps a country town with dual lanes through the centre.
Overtaking at speed is risky and should be avoided if there are safer alternatives.
How much distance do I need to overtake?
This is a critical question and depends mostly on four factors:
Your speed relative to the other vehicle – The greater the speed difference between your car and their car, the quicker the overtake and the shorter the distance required. Australian rules say you cannot exceed the speed limit when overtaking though, but you should aim to pass as quickly as you can.
Your speed – Doing 60km/h to overtake a car at 40km/h uses less distance than overtaking a car doing 90km/h when you’re at 110km/h. In both cases, the speed difference is 20km/h, but at 60km/h you’re doing 17m a second and at 110km/h it is 30m/s.
The length of the vehicle(s) you will overtake – A normal road car is about 5m long. A b-double truck could be 20m long, and that makes a difference.
The gradient – If your car is powerful, uphill or downhill makes little difference. But if it isn’t, uphill takes longer. You may also find that the car being overtaken is slower uphill than downhill. Either way, consider gradient as a distance overtaking factor.
You must only overtake when you can see all the way clear with an allowance for oncoming traffic. You also need to allow for the possibility of an oncoming car appearing after you start the overtake. This article is about country road overtaking, so we’ll assume the car being overtaken is doing 80km/h and the overtaking car is doing 100km/h. In that case, you want to have more than 1km of clear road to be sure of a safe overtake.
Your car and theirs…
Some things to consider:
Relative performance – What you’re driving and what the other person is driving makes a difference to an overtake. If the other car is an old diesel ute with a heavy load it might maintain 110km/h on the flat, but up a hill you can expect it to struggle and if you’re in a modern roadcar you will have an advantage, so that would be a good time to overtake. The reverse applies too – if you’re driving the diesel ute trying to overtake a slow-moving modern roadcar, don’t expect to do it up a hill. Or maybe at all.
Your load – With smaller petrol cars, the performance is quite different depending on whether there are one or five people on board. This is less of a problem with larger, powerful vehicles. A bit of acceleration-experimentation is a good idea to get to know your vehicle.
If you tow a trailer – If you tow a trailer you can still overtake, but as you do so you’ll speed up. The faster you go, the greater the risk of trailer sway, so you’d best make sure your rig is properly set up. Like everything else when towing compared to not towing, overtaking is more difficult and dangerous, and you often don’t realise until it’s too late. You can read all about towing heavy trailers here. As you overtake you might get buffet which could induce trailer sway.
Large trucks – These may be up to 20m long compared to a car of around 5m or less, so trucks take a lot longer to pass. They may also shield you temporarily from crosswinds, so be aware of that effect as you pass.
Overtaking a trailer tower – Like trucks, allow extra distance, as the combination might measure 15m long which is another few long seconds to pass. Trailers may also sway unexpectedly.
Cyclists – The law says “allow a minimum of 1 metre clearance when overtaking cyclists; 1.5 metres if travelling faster than 60 km/h”. As a cyclist, I’d go further and suggest everyone overtakes a cyclist as they would a car, on the opposite side of the road. The airwash from a car doing 100km/h is significant.
When NOT to overtake?
The most important skill with overtaking is picking the right time. It’s impossible to give a complete list of situations where you shouldn’t overtake, but here are some examples:
Junctions coming up – Junctions create additional risks as some people (everyone that’s not you) will not expect a driver on the wrong side of the road.
Junctions on the right – Special mention here. If a car pulls out of a junction on your left the driver will look right. If the junction is on the other side of the road then the driver may not expect to see a car coming in the wrong direction.
Speed limit reductions – You don’t want to overtake and then slam on the brakes immediately afterward.
Railway crossings – never overtake on one.
Crests – Especially if you’re in a low sportscar you often can’t see over crests. Never, ever, overtake when you can’t see all the way ahead.
Narrowing roads – Nope, just adds risk.
Road problems – If there’s a dead tyre in the road or some other sort of problem you can expect the car ahead to swerve around it. This is yet another reason why you need to hang back so you can see ahead properly.
When a car is indicating right – Or it looks like it might turn right – never overtake.
Whenever you might make the overtaken driver nervous – Or cause them or any other road user concern, or to alter what they are doing.
Is it legal to overtake?
Here are some examples of when it’s not legal to overtake:
When there are signs saying don’t overtake, don’t overtake A solid white line in the road on your side means no overtaking. A dotted line means overtaking is permitted, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s always safe. The line for the other side of the road may be dotted or solid.
When there are “No Overtaking” signs.
Looking for the chance to overtake
Every second in an overtake is vital, because the other side of the road is a danger zone you want to spend as little time as possible in. So, what you don’t want do is get to an overtake point, dither around, put the car in gear, and then go. Instead, you need to be alert to the overtaking possibility before it comes up so you’re all ready to go the moment the road is clear. You do that by hanging back to 3-4 seconds behind and looking well ahead. Only unskilled drivers tailgate before overtaking.
Position your car
You need to see well ahead to overtake, and you need to accelerate behind the car in front and then pull out. Neither can be done if you’re right behind the car in front, so hang back by 3 or 4 seconds. A skilled overtaker judges the time to overtake and smoothly closes the gap at the last moment, but an unskilled driver closely follows the car in front, jumping on and off the brake pedal, cursing the car in front. And when the time comes to go they are slow to get the car up to speed.
You should also offset your car relative to the one in front so you can see well ahead. Take advantage of curves; they allow you to look past the car in front and see what’s happening. Many overtakes can be set up by checking all is clear as you round a bend, preparing, and soon as you’re on the straight, past you go.
Let’s say you’re on a windy road, and you know there’s one last bend before a nice long straight. Drop down the gears, close up, and be ready to zip past soon as the road opens up and you’ve had a good long look.
Similarly, if you’re waiting for another car to go by on the opposite side of the road, then again close up, drop your gears and start accelerating to overtake just before the other car goes by – but do not signal to move out before any oncoming vehicles have passed you.
While it is not necessary, it is a good idea to follow the other car in front first. That way the other driver is more likely to be aware of you, and won’t be surprised when you overtake.
You know you’re good at observation when you identify a chance to overtake before you can actually perform the overtake, thereby allowing yourself to get your car in gear and start accelerating to overtake.
Here’s what you look for:
Cars ahead – how many cars are you going to overtake? It may be more than one…could be a big car shielding a smaller one from view. If you can, wait a while and make sure there’s as many cars ahead as you think there are. If you are overtaking two or more cars there is a definite chance that as you begin the overtake the other following car will also overtake at the same time. This can create conflict. You can generally tell when a car is looking to overtake as the driver positions their car to get by. If you are observant, you may recognise the car from before; maybe it overtook you earlier, and you went by when it stopped. However, don’t assume the driver will now behave the same way as many travellers swap drivers.
Cars behind – As you start to overtake, the car behind you may well start to overtake you as well. Keep an eye on your rearview mirror, and make it obvious by your car’s positioning you’re looking to get by so the driver behind plans for you to move too.
If you feel the situation with multiple overtakes is too risky, then let the other car(s) overtake first, then do your own overtake after they have finished.
Hazards – These are things that could cause danger. Vegetation close to the road that could hide people or cars, junctions, crests, puddles. Look for and assess each one.
The final check
So you’ve spotted a chance coming up soon. Ask yourself these questions just before you overtake:
- Do I really need to?
- Is it legal?
- Do I have enough space and time?
- What are the other cars likely to do?
- Is the road condition suitable?
- Have I thought about all the hazards and decided the risk is low?
If the answer to all of those is yes, then:
The overtake itself
Finally, we’re here! Yes, it took a long time, but we’re talking life and death potential for you and others. The other point is, again, that overtaking is more about the planning than the execution.
Here’s the process:
- Check your mirrors (again) to ensure you’re not about to be overtaken yourself
- Drop down into your overtaking gear
- Final check ahead
- Signal to move out
- Move out. Keep looking ahead
- Get past as quickly as you can (and at this point the government would like to remind you not to exceed the speed limit, because “safety”)
- When you can see the car behind completely in your left wingmirror, indicate left and smoothly move in
- If you sped up to overtake beyond your normal cruising speed, then let the speed slowly wash off
Aborting the overtake
If you need to abort an overtake then you must understand you, and you alone have failed.
Don’t go blaming anyone else – you’ve stuffed up. If you live, then spend the next few minutes thinking hard about what you got wrong and don’t go blaming others.
Backing out is in theory quite easy. Just apply the brakes and drop back behind the other car. However, if you’ve had to back out chances are others will also take avoiding action. The car being overtaken, for example, may also brake, leaving you side by side.
If you’re overtaking and another car follows you and you decide you want to abort then what do you do? You can’t brake. You probably don’t want to accelerate. There is no advice for you at this point as it’s all down to luck, and should you live, reconsider your attitude to risk.
Here are some tips to help others overtake you:
Lift off the accelerator slightly. Yes, even 2-3km/h makes a difference. Or drop the cruise control back a peg, then resume once they’re past. DO NOT accelerate when being overtaken!
Keep left on multi-lane roads.
Keep your lights on in the country. Even during daylight – this makes you much easier to see. If you’re really slow, pull over – even if there’s not a slow vehicle pull over, you can help. Just slow down at the start of a good passing place, indicate left, and let the cars pass. You don’t need to stop, just knock off enough speed to make a pass easy, maybe just 10-20km/h. However, do not pull over when it’s a dangerous location to overtake.
Overtaking in special conditions
At night – To be avoided where possible. You simply can’t see as far ahead, and relying on car headlights is a bad idea as it is very hard to judge distance, and that assumes all cars actually have headlights on. However, sometimes it is possible. The same rules apply as per day overtaking, but as you draw level with the car in front, put your headlights on full beam. The other driver should dip theirs.
In the wet – Even more dangerous than usual as there’s less traction, and less visibility. Beware of puddles on either side of the road. A
Around corners – This is actually possible provided there is a clear line of sight, but beware the other car cutting across lanes.
Dirt roads – If it’s dusty you have no chance as you don’t want to drive in a zero-visibility dust cloud. All you can do is wait, or call up on UHF 40 and see if you’ll be let by. If it’s not dusty, then you can close up but it’s always better to be let by than force your way because there are no marking lines on dirt roads.
Standard cruise control – No need to disable it during an overtake, as when you accelerate it cancels, and when you release the accelerator the car will resume your original speed.
Adaptive cruise control – Cancel this, as it may slow you down during the following phase when you don’t want to be slowed down.
Golden rule for overtaking – If there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt. Stay back.
The official government advice
What’s the official government advice? Well, because Australia, that varies from state to state. This from the RMS in NSW is typical:
And bullet point #1, out of all the advice they could give, is do not exceed the speed limit. (The RMS has since moved this advice to the bottom of its list since we first published this article in 2017.)
Here’s some more:
If you want a really good book on how to drive on public roads then there is none better than Roadcraft from the UK Police who are recognised as having the finest driver training in the world. Roadcraft forms the basis of the UK’s Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) group, an organisation dedicated to improving driving standards through post-license training. Sadly, we have no IAM here (although New Zealand does).