Steve Wallace: To pass or not: A most dangerous question

The most dangerous driving task is passing others on a two-lane, high-speed highway. Passing other vehicles should be done with a high degree of due care and attention, regardless of the number of travel lanes available.

Most drivers underestimate the time needed to execute a proper and safe pass. When people are in the act of doing something, time seems to pass quicker than if the subjects are not occupied with a task at hand. (For example, sitting in a corner watching paint dry will seem like an eternity, as opposed to doing the act of painting itself.)

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Think about it. You are going to put your automobile in a lane, on a two-way high-speed highway, reserved for those coming in the opposite direction. The average driver will underestimate the space and time necessary to execute a safe pass. Consider the preparation needed to pass. A safe driver will check for a safe gap ahead. A signal, mirror and shoulder check are needed in this preparation time span. There should be at least a two-second following distance to ensure no unintended braking behaviour of a vehicle immediately ahead in the same lane, while checking the blind spot. The acceleration should be smooth, but applied in such a fashion as to maintain control on any road surface. There is a misconception by many drivers who exceed the speed limit to pass another car. They believe the driver passing others is permitted to exceed the speed limit. Granted, police do have a tolerance when issuing speeding tickets, but make no mistake: Exceeding the speed limit while passing is an offence.

Once a driver has passed the vehicle, a return to the right lane of a two-lane road should only be made when the front of the vehicle being passed can be clearly visible in the rear view mirror of the driver executing the move. A signal, mirror and shoulder check is done prior to the return to the original lane of a two-lane road.

There is one more thing to consider before a safe pass. Given that there is ample time and space to do the pass, every driver should be aware of the “magnet effect.” Most drivers increase speed when being passed. It is a natural competitive inclination, or perhaps a subconscious behaviour behind the wheel. Believe it or not, it is a fact. Many professional drivers will confirm this weird and counterproductive behaviour. Psychologists believe it has to do with someone wanting what another possesses, namely the travelled lane. Be carful when passing to not be victimized by this odd and dangerous tendency of most drivers.

Those on cruise control or in autonomous vehicles are not susceptible to this effect. The same thing happens when a driver is waiting for another to vacate a parking space. Studies show the time it takes a driver to leave a parking space when another driver is clearly waiting to use that same space is longer than if there was nobody waiting to take it. Go figure? Human nature.

Passing on a multi-lane road is much easier than on a two-lane road. The closing rate of speed of oncoming drivers is not a factor on a divided multi-lane freeway. There is a dangerous situation when drivers who are close to side-by-side and heading for the same lane, from left and right at the same time. Without a defensive shoulder check to the intended side of travel, there is a possibility of a crash.

Whether passing in a relatively safe same-direction multi-lane road, or a super dangerous two-lane oncoming situation, be aware you are executing the most dangerous and deadly action.

Steve Wallace is the owner of Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island. He is a former vice-president of the Driving Schools Association of the Americas, a registered B.C. teacher and a University of Manitoba graduate.

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