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The Australian Overtake… and why we shouldn’t be proud of it

There’s an overtaking manoeuvre unique to Australia, and it’s nothing to be proud of.

SO THERE YOU ARE, cruising at 100km/h exactly on the freeway, in the middle of three lanes (legally, in Victoria). Ahead is another driver doing 98km/h, and eventually you draw close enough for an overtake.

In order to pass you might pull out when you’re, say, five car lengths behind, and maybe pull in when you’re five ahead. Call it ten all up, or about 50m. 

That overtake at a speed difference of 2km/h means you’ll need 90 seconds to get past, over which you’ll travel 2.5km. And that’s assuming you maintain an even 2km/h overtake rate. The car being overtaken might speed up just a fraction, or you may slow down a touch. Then you’re in overtaking limbo…unable to complete the overtake, but unwilling to drop back and start again. And with increasingly heavy fines for exceeding the signed limit by only the smallest of margins, you certainly don’t want to increase speed to about 103km/h as you run the risk of a fine. Instead, you’re side by side with the other car for the rest of eternity, a dual-lane rolling blockage. 

And it’s compounded by the fact that nearly all new cars have a speedo that’s inaccurate, legally to ADRs, by up to 10 percent plus 4km/h. So a new SUV sitting in the middle lane could be sitting at exactly 100km/h on the speedo, but in reality, they are doing 97km/h. Your car might be spot-on accurate and so you’re still stuck trying to legally pass slower traffic.

This scenario does not make for safe, efficient or stress-free driving, but it is the Australian Overtake and it is a problem.

Aside from the frustration of both drivers involved in the overtake, when someone else comes up behind you they have to wait a long, long time before they can get past, which is why passing on the left – undertaking – happens. Undertakes are not safe, but they’re very common in Australia because of the Australian Overtake. The driver behind could also slow down and wait, and some will wag sanctimonious fingers, saying that’s what should happen.

Back in reality – if someone is travelling at say 102km/h they aren’t likely to want to drop to 97 or lower just because there’s a blockage ahead, and that’s a simple fact of human nature. And even if they did, then their slowing down will cause the car behind to slow down a bit more, then the car behind that a bit more again, and that’s exactly how traffic jams build up over time.

Now let’s say this trio of cars – two in the Australian Overtake, and one behind – happen upon another car which is doing say 95km/h in the middle lane. The original car being overtaken either has to speed up to get around the slower car or drop their speed further or change lanes. None of these are good options.

All of these problems can be sheeted home to the fact that in Australia, we have 95 percent of drivers trying to drive between 96 and 103km/h, so overtaking takes a long time, frustrations run high and freeway blockages are frequent.

Is there a better way, you may wonder? Well, yes there is and we need only look at Europe. I know how that works because I lived there for years and drove about 100,000km a year around the place. European freeway speed limits are typically 120 or 130km/h, and people cruise between 100 and 150km/h.  Yes, above and below the limit. European freeways are giant proof that if speed limit tolerances are increased not everyone will take advantage. And Europe has a greater volume of cars than we do. Australians think they know traffic jams, but that’s like Europeans thinking they understand heat. 

This is how proper freeway driving works: you’re cruising at 120, passing a bunch of cars doing 110. At a 10km/h overtake rate it’s only 18 seconds to overtake and 600m distance, even at 120km/h.

Let’s say a faster car from behind appears, doing 140km/h. In Australia, you ignore them and turn on the hate, mentally composing a ‘every other driver on the planet is a tool’ Facebook post.  In Europe, you wait for a gap in the slower lane, nip in and let the faster car by.  In return, the faster car scoots through, overtaking in a matter of seconds, allowing you to come back out into your original lane without you needing to slow down at all, before you catch the car in front. It’s a maneuver of beauty and I love it no matter which side of it I’m on. But in Australia you can’t do it as the relative speeds aren’t great enough.

The only time I’ve ever undertaken a car is in Australia because it was either that or sit at 85 in a 100 zone. Never, ever in all those kilometres of driving across Europe and the UK did I even feel the need to undertake let alone actually do it. Surely that says something about our freeway culture?

Another example. In Europe, if someone really wants to crack on they drive in the fast lane with their left indicator on (Europe, remember). This is a signal to say please let me through fast, and people do let them through.  

In return, that driver then has to overtake quickly because they’ve advertised their intent, and they do. It works. Nobody’s ego is broken, and everyone moves that bit quicker. Now in Australia, what’s going to happen if a car sits behind you with the right indicator on? It’d be melted by the hating.

The Australian Overtake is frustrating, inefficient and potentially dangerous. The solution is simple. A freeway where people can drive a range of speeds is more efficient and less frustrating than one where everyone is trying to drive at exactly the same speed. Just take a drive around Europe’s freeways and you’ll see for yourself.

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And finally, you can listen to our interview on the ABC on the matter.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper