Should we legalise undertaking?

Published: 16 February 2012

Undertaking is the cannabis of driving: lots of people do it, most of them are never ticked off by a policeman and yet it is, I think – and I’ll come back to why I say ‘I think’ in a moment – illegal. Does it make sense, then, to legalise undertaking, perhaps for medical reasons that might include alleviating stress?

Rule 268 of the Highway Code has this to say about undertaking:

‘Do not overtake on the left or move to a lane on your left to overtake. In congested conditions, where adjacent lanes of traffic are moving at similar speeds, traffic in left-hand lanes may sometimes be moving faster than traffic to the right. In these conditions you may keep up with the traffic in your lane even if this means passing traffic in the lane to your right. Do not weave in and out of lanes to overtake.’

I found this caveat confusing when I was cramming for my driving test, and I still find it confusing today; it’s why I say ‘I think’ undertaking is illegal. It’s semantics; what constitutes congested conditions? Because when it’s congested, you’re allowed to undertake.

Now, in some ways the rule is very sound. You wouldn’t want to be edging along at 5mph in the left lane in heavy traffic, with an absolute ban on undertaking mandating that you never move ahead of the car to your right. This would be ridiculous, like some kind of automotive offside rule that stymied the natural flow of traffic. But what is congestion? At what point above that 5mph crawl does congestion cease, meaning the no undertaking rule comes back into force? Does a busy dual carriageway with two lanes packed with traffic all moving at 55mph still constitute congestion? Probably not, but just try telling that to the weary souls trudging despondently along the A14 near Cambridge at rush-hour: they’re all at it. The rule remains foggier than Sherlock Holmes’s London.

The case for not undertaking at higher speeds is strong: it avoids those situations on three-lane carriageways where one car might be pulling out of the left-hand lane to overtake a lorry, while another might be undertaking a car that’s dawdling in the right-hand lane, the result being that the cars that were moving from each outside lane collide in the middle. And, a personal gripe this, I absolutely hate it when a group of cars are queuing to overtake a lorry on a dual carriageway, and another lorry steamrolls up the inside, then taps the indicator and turns the steering wheel with the same movement. If anything flicks the road-rage switch in my brain and makes me want to reverse my car back and forth over the offender’s head for days and days and days, this is pretty high up on the list.

So, is it simply clearer for everyone if we legalise undertaking? That way we’d all know to expect a car moving past us to our left or right, no matter what the speed, and the murky ‘congested conditions’ ruling can be consigned to history.

Well, undertaking is legal in America, and I spent a few weeks driving on California’s freeways back in January. I remember Jeremy Clarkson, in the pre-Last Of The Summer Wine meets Beadle’s About era of Top Gear, banging on about how great it all was. And, on lightly trafficked roads, he’s right: if someone’s hanging about in the middle lane, you just undertake them. No flashing headlights, no putting your indicator on like they do in Continental Europe (more polite, don’t you think?), no road rage from either party, no need to load up that Colt 45; just get past them and go on your way.

The problem comes with busier roads: with no impetus to move over, cars simply stay in whichever lane they choose, with the result that rolling roadblocks emerge far earlier than they would in the UK. You can become trapped for ages, and it’s far more frustrating than being stuck behind someone in the outside lane on the way to Heathrow. And, particularly on busy four-lane roads, it can be incredibly hard to keep track of who’s moving from where, and from which direction. It feels like a crash is more likely to me.

Ultimately, our system’s flawed, but it’s a case of better the devil you know than descending into the chaos of an undertaking free-for-all. So, move to the left when you can, and only undertake in congested conditions. Oh…

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator