Picture the scene: you’re flying down the motorway and suddenly the overtaking lane you’re in slows dramatically. A gap opens in the middle lane that would take you soaring past this annoying tailback, but if you were to chance it and overtake using the inside lane (or ‘undertake’ as it’s often known) are you actually breaking the law?
In towns and cities overtaking on the left is allowed, as per Section 163 of The Highway Code. It’s perfectly acceptable if the car in front is turning right, or pulling into a right-hand filter lane, so long as you exercise the same caution as you would if overtaking on the right.
What about on a motorway?
Section 268 acknowledges that the outside lanes on a motorway may be travelling slower than those on the inside, and so undertaking vehicles in those slower-moving lanes is to be expected, particularly during congested times.
What if there’s no congestion and I’m just in a hurry?
That’s fine too, sort of. The Highway Code specifically uses the words ‘MUST’ and ‘MUST NOT’ to indicate legal requirements and nowhere in The Highway Code does it say a driver ‘must not’ overtake using an inside lane. In fact, Section 268 states, “Do not overtake on the left or move to a lane on your left to overtake.” The use of ‘do not’ instead of ‘must not’ means it is technically legal to overtake in any lane except the hard shoulder.
So I can overtake however I like?
It’s strongly advised you avoid overtaking using the inside lane in any circumstance. The odd undertake here and there won’t attract too much negative attention from police, particularly if a situation obviously calls for it, but darting across three lanes to cut down the inside of some poor, unsuspecting granny could cause you problems.
What kind of problems?
You can be charged with ‘dangerous driving’, or ‘driving without due care and attention’, both of which can result in fines and up to eleven points on your licence, depending on the extent of the damage caused by your driving.
Dangerous driving can land you a two-year holiday at Her Majesty’s pleasure and you’d have to re-sit your driving test after an obligatory one-year ban. It hardly seems worth it to save a few minutes by breezing past a couple of cars.
Can I flash my headlights at people?
You can try. But they’re under no obligation to move as, according to rule 110, a person flashing their lights simply means ‘I am here’. It is not intended to convey any other message. It’s worth noting, if you’re driving abroad, in many states of the US, Australia and Canada, headlight flashing is illegal.
Can I overtake on the inside lanes when abroad?
Australians say any lane is fair game. The law varies by province in Canada, and by state in the US. In America, all states display clear signs when it is not permissible under any circumstances.
Can I drive in any lane then?
Section 264 says “You should always drive in the left-hand lane when the road ahead is clear. If you are overtaking a number of slower-moving vehicles, you should return to the left-hand lane as soon as you are safely past.”
We have heard reports of traffic police using matrix signs from their standard-issue Rangies to alert drivers to their inappropriate ‘lane discipline’, though we couldn’t find any evidence of drivers being prosecuted for this.
In conclusion, it is perfectly legal to overtake in the ‘wrong’ lane, but not always advisable. If you are going to then make sure it’s safe to do so. Put your dipped beam on, triple check your mirrors and make sure other drivers aren’t about to move into the same space you are.
Check out our other ‘Is it legal’ features: