Passing/Overtaking on a Motorcycle

Overtaking and passing. These are both terms meaning the same thing — depending on your local lexicon, but they both refer to the act of getting past a vehicle that is going slower than you intend to ride yourself.

For consistency, I will use the term “passing” in this chapter.

Passing is arguably one of the most dangerous things we do while riding, yet, executed with care and planning, it is not something to be feared or unnecessarily avoided. Indeed, sometimes we find that the safest place to be is in front of some hazards.

So, with that said, let’s take a look at how we can make passing the safest activity we can.

It may seem counter-productive, but would you like to know the first thing I do when considering a pass? I drop back — sometimes way back. This may seem the opposite of what we want to achieve, but let me outline what we need to plan when considering a pass, and the reason for dropping back may become clearer.

For a safe pass we need to:

  • Know exactly where and when we are going to perform the pass.
  • Have a very thorough and complete view of our environment — including a long distance ahead.
  • Know exactly where our “re-entry point” is. That is, where we are going to join the flow of traffic again on our side of the road.
  • Know what speed we are going to have to achieve to execute the pass.
  • All of these things are facilitated by dropping back. Most importantly, from this position we get to:
  • Achieve a much clearer view of the road ahead (without obstruction from the vehicle we are trying to pass) — thereby allowing us access to the necessary information to properly plan the manoeuvre.
  • Use the “run up” to the pass to lessen the need for excessive acceleration.

Let me expand on that last point — lessening the need for excessive acceleration: You will often see drivers and riders sitting closely behind a vehicle they are just about to pass. Indeed, that is often a clue that they are about to do so.

In that situation they are robbing themselves of a good, clear view of the road ahead. How many times do you see these people start to pass, then abort when something they have missed suddenly comes into their view?

Furthermore, when they go to pass, they will need all the acceleration they can get from their machine because, relative to the car in front, they are starting from zero. Both vehicles are going at the same speed.
Although we often have plenty of acceleration at our command, overly harsh acceleration goes against our mantra: “A motorcycle is at its most stable when going in a straight line at a constant speed.” The further we go from that ideal, the less stable the machine will be.

So, what do we do? We start the manoeuvre from way back. By the time we reach the vehicle we’re about to pass, we have already achieved the necessary speed differential to smoothly get past them. No frantic acceleration is necessary.

Now, this technique does come at a price. It means that we need to plan this manoeuvre much, much further ahead. That is why I stated at the beginning of this article that a well-executed pass requires much forethought and planning.

If you aren’t 110% sure you can safely carry it out; if you don’t have the necessary view ahead; in short, if you don’t have all of your “ducks in a row”, don’t do it. It’s as simple as that.

In the following images, I will outline the steps for a carefully planned and executed pass:

Motorcycle passing and overtakingHere, I am following a car which I intend to pass. At this proximity, I can’t get enough information about the road ahead. My view is obscured by the car I’m about to pass. Also, if I were to initiate the pass from here, it would require a lot of acceleration to get past the car.

Motorcycle passing and overtaking

To gain a better view of the road ahead, I have dropped back considerably. From this position, I can see much further ahead and plan my pass. I am:

• Looking for oncoming traffic.
• Looking for any road features that would cause me to forego the pass (such as an upcoming junction).
• Planning my “re-entry” point.
• Observing any vehicles in front of the one I’m passing — and what they’re doing.
• Checking what is behind me.

If I need to shift toward the left or right of my lane to get an even better view, I will do so — as long as it doesn’t bring me into conflict with oncoming traffic.

Motorcycle passing and overtakingHaving made careful observations and planned all the points of the pass, the process begins. I have already picked my re-entry point.

I begin to accelerate. The objective is to arrive at the point where I move out to pass at a sufficient speed to smoothly execute the manoeuvre without asking too much of my machine.

Passing and overtaking on a motorcycle

As I approach the vehicle in front, I put on a turn signal. I consider giving a flash on my of my lights, or a brief sound of my horn, to alert the driver that I am about to pass.

Note that it is not necessary for the last vehicle coming in the opposite direction to have cleared at this point. As long as they will have cleared by the time I begin to move out. I am still on my side of the road, and perfectly able to abort the pass should circumstances change.

I am continually practising the IPSGA and TUG methodologies as outlined in Motorcycle Mastery, so, at any point, circumstances may dictate I re-evaluate the manoeuvre.

Passing and overtaking on a motorcycleI have now moved out to pass. Note that I’m not being timid about my positioning, and I am using the opposite lane to my advantage by not getting too close to the vehicle I am passing.

There are a couple of reasons for this: firstly, I want to create a “buffer zone” between myself and the car I am passing and, secondly, it affords me a better view of what is happening up ahead. From this position, I could see if, for instance, a vehicle up ahead shows a turn signal. The worst-case scenario being a left-turn signal! Not seeing this has caused many unfortunate incidents for some people.

This clearly is the most dangerous point of the manoeuvre. Don’t linger out there. Get past. Keep observing.

Passing and overtaking on a motorcycle

Having passed the vehicle, I smoothly head for my re-entry point.

Now,  this is a fine example of using throttle sense. If I need to brake, I was going too fast, or I didn’t allow a big enough gap for my re-entry, or it simply wasn’t prudent to pass at that point.

I should be able to smoothly adjust the throttle, and re-join the flow of traffic — at their speed — without needing to brake, or causing any of the vehicles around me to take action.

A well-planned and skilfully executed pass is a thing of beauty (OK, I may need to get out more).
Like most things in good, skilled riding, the keyword is “smooth”. Further, our objective is to execute the pass while leaving no “footprint”. In other words, if we cause any other vehicle to take action because of it, we have failed.

Let me leave you now with some final points about passing:

  • Never pass in the proximity of a junction or business entrance, gas/petrol station, mall, etc. I have personally witnessed a very unfortunate crash where the rider did exactly that. How many times have you seen vehicles make a turn into a junction without a signal? Imagine the result if you were passing that vehicle at the time.
  • Don’t follow other riders or drivers in their pass — even if they employ some kind of signal to indicate to you that it is safe to do so. What may be perfectly safe for them, may spell disaster for you. Always evaluate and plan as if you are riding on your own. Be responsible for your own manoeuvres.
  • Never be “invited” to pass. If a driver ahead signals for you to pass, then be glad that they are now aware that you are likely to do so, but past that… ignore it. Only pass if it’s perfectly safe to do so having considered every point in this post. Of course, if I do evaluate the situation, and pass at that point, I always make a point to show some courtesy by “thanking” the driver when it is safe to do so.
  • Consider what is to be gained by getting past the vehicles in front. If little is to be ultimately gained, question whether it is worth the added risk.
  • It should always be considered a failure if anything you do while out riding causes another road user to do something in reaction to it. If you cause another road user to slow, speed up, brake or swerve, consider that a failure.
  • Don’t “linger”. If you have carefully planned the pass, you will be passing the vehicle at a healthy speed differential. Get past, and back into your lane as soon as possible without cutting in front of the vehicle you have just passed.
  • Be prepared for the people “helping” you pass, and messing up your carefully planned manoeuvre. This is something I have only experienced in the US, but I find that many people see you passing and, bizarrely, brake! This is not too bad if it is the vehicle you are passing, but what if it is the vehicle behind which you were planning to re-enter? I have had this happen to me, and it very nearly caused a crash. I consider this a particularly misguided and dangerous activity, but be prepared for it happening.
  • Similarly, if you yourself are being passed, the best thing to do is… nothing! The person passing you has planned their manoeuvre using the data they had available to them when they commenced. Don’t mess things up by speeding up or slowing down.

I intend to add more videos to this blog as time goes on. To start off with, I have created a quick video demonstrating some of the points outlined above, which are considered during a live pass:

Until next time, keep the rubber down!

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