Overtaking Vehicles: A Liability Minefield

Imagine the scenario: you’re running late for a wedding, you’re still fifty miles away and you’re stuck in a queue of slow moving traffic behind a tractor. As you hit a straight bit of road, the temptation is to take a punt and overtake the lot…

But what about the risks? What if a vehicle comes from the other direction? What if one of the vehicles in the queue tries to overtake at the same time? Or what if one of them turns right, or another vehicle pulls out from the right? If you are going to make the wedding at all, you need to consider all these factors! If you do not, you might find yourself not only seriously injured, but also responsible for a nasty accident.

Human error

One of the most common causes of road traffic accidents we handle is a poorly executed overtaking manoeuvre, or an unexpected change in circumstances as someone is overtaking.

Identifying who is responsible is rarely clear cut, and often a court will split liability between the people involved. The court takes a series of factors into account when deciding who made an error:

  • Did anyone indicate?
  • If so, was the indication made in good time?
  • What was the road layout – was it straight, or on a bend?
  • What speed was the overtaking vehicle travelling?
  • Were there any independent witnesses or dash cam footage?
  • Did the right-turning driver check his mirrors to look out for any overtaking vehicle?
  • The area of damage to the vehicles.
  • Weather conditions.

The differing circumstances make this area of law a legal minefield. There are lots of examples where one court has decided one thing, and another has made a completely different finding on similar facts.

Right-turning vehicles

Using the wedding scenario above, imagine as you are overtaking along the straight, the tractor turns right, into a field. The tractor indicates for ten seconds before turning, and can be seen by the whole queue as it arrives at the turning – and all the other traffic had slowed down. If you are in the process of overtaking, who is to blame if you crash into the tractor as it turns right?

A court would consider all of the factors above in deciding who is at fault. If the farmer failed to look in his mirrors before turning, or did not indicate, he may be found to be at least partly to blame. However, if you do not anticipate the turn, despite the tractor indicating and the traffic slowing down, you should expect to be found partly liable as well – especially if you are accelerating to get past the traffic.

Imagine a slight change in scenario. The tractor did not indicate, and did not slow down before it turned across your path. In that situation, it is more likely the tractor driver would take a greater share of the blame.

The Highway Code

If you do intend to overtake, the Highway Code provides the best guidance on how to carry this out safely. The advice is fairly simple:

  • Make sure the road is clear ahead of you,
  • Check that other road users are not beginning to overtake you, and
  • Ensure there is a suitable gap in front of the road user you plan to overtake.

The court will apply these basic rules as best it can, but it often comes down to the evidence of independent witnesses and the specific circumstances of an accident. Therefore, just complying with the Highway Code may not be enough to protect you in court.

More recently, dash-cam footage has become an invaluable assistant to the courts and the parties in trying to establish liability earlier. This means that far fewer cases should go all the way to court.

If it seems too risky, don’t overtake!

It seems obvious, but so many accidents could be avoided if the overtaking driver simply decided not to take the risk. It is safer to assume every car might turn right, or a vehicle might pull out, than assuming they won’t. If you are going to overtake, make absolutely sure the vehicle in front has seen you do it, and that the circumstances make your manoeuvre as low-risk as possible. Better to be late to the wedding than never getting there!

If you have been involved in an accident involving an overtaking vehicle; whether you were overtaking or in a queue, or a right-turning vehicle, we offer a free consultation in which we can discuss your options. It can’t hurt to ask – and you may find you are entitled to bring a personal injury claim. Call us today on freephone 0800 988 7756.


John James

John James


Tel: 01924 692125
Email: jjames@levisolicitors.co.uk
John James