The absent-minded sideswipe of a motorcyclist overtaking a slow-moving car is among the most frequent of accidents we deal with.
1. How do sideswipe motorcycle accident happen?
The exact facts vary but typically the rider is behind a slowly driven car and he/she will often describe erratic driving by the vehicle they overtake.
The rider, understandably, uses their 'narrowness, acceleration and nimbleness' to make an overtake. Then the car turns right maybe with a last minute indication but frequently without one, and the rider is painfully scooped up by the car's door.
2. What causes motorists to drive erratically?
There are a couple of common threads at work here - one is sat nav and the other is an elderly car driver which goes some way to explaining why these incidents tend to involve a car turning onto a drive, making a U-turn or turning into a layby.
3. What does the law say about overtaking erratic drivers?
The law says that a vehicle being overtaken owes a duty to maintain a safe and steady course. The Highway Code and the courts say that a vehicle diverting its course must first check its mirrors to ensure that it is not being overtaken.
When we take turning into a junction out of the equation, which is something a motorcyclist should anticipate, we are left with a motorcyclist having to anticipate a particularly unusual manoeuvre: using the language of the Court of Appeal, a sensible road user should be on guard to negligent driving which happens frequently, but does not have to guard against every folly.
4. Should motorcyclists overtake slow and oddly driven cars?
So, you are entitled to overtake a vehicle travelling significantly slower than the speed limit and the driver must expect it. You do, however, have to apply common sense because in most of these cases there has been an allegation that the motorcyclist has not properly looked after their own interests by going for an overtake.
The courts are willing to give this line of argument some house room. If the motorcyclist describes a period of erratic driving, even the most novice advocate will ask this question - 'if the car was being driven so oddly, don't you think it might have been an idea to hang back?' This cannot be a full defence but it can get contributory negligence home.
5. So what does the wise motorcyclist do when caught behind a slowly and oddly driven car?
Judicious use of the horn is my remedy when overtaking vehicles which I am not confident are going to maintain a safe and steady course.
The courts, particularly in older cases, were remarkably keen on the use of the horn to warn another road user of your presence. It's also what the Highway Code says you should use a horn for.
The way the human brain is wired means eyes only see what they are looking at, and if the eyes are looking at a nav screen they are not looking at the mirrors. The brain's conditioned response to a horn blast is to stop what it is doing.
You might be perceived as being a touch aggressive, but I would rather be perceived as handy with the horn than sideswiped.
6. Should a motorcyclist hold back from an overtake?
If an overtake feels like it could go wrong hang back. Otherwise use your horn, your acceleration and anticipate the car.
The brain reacts faster to an anticipated hazard than it does an unexpected one - so be on your toes at all times. And if you are at all concerned about your overtake remember bad drivers do very weird things.
Bike Magazine December 2020