I understand this is more of a driving question, but I'm curious to know the answer from the bicycling community and perhaps gain insight into how to act both as a bicyclist and driver.

The other day I was driving on a local two-lane 60mph highway when I encountered a bicyclist. Naturally, I slowed down to assess the situation, waiting for oncoming traffic to pass, and pulled into the oncoming lane in order to give the bicyclist a berth and pass them. This was on a busy country highway with high speed traffic but no bicycle lane nor really a shoulder for them to ride on to avoid cars, so it wasn't the best road to be biking on, but regardless I tried to pass them safely.

To my confusion and amusement, the bicyclist flipped me the bird.

Previously, I had considered to best way to safely pass a bicycle would be to pass them like a car: signal, move into the oncoming lane, move back once the road is clearly seen in my rear view. This apparently was not the correct course of action to the irritated bicyclist, and I am curious to know what the safest and most respectful way to pass a bicyclist is, particularly on a road where there is not a ridable shoulder or bike lane.

  • 53
    It sounds like the way you handled it was just fine. If you didn't follow obnoxiously close, blow your horn inappropriately, or pass closer than 3 feet/1 meter to the bike when passing then the cyclist was just being obnoxious. There are obnoxious cyclists, just as there are obnoxious motorists. – Daniel R Hicks Sep 14 at 16:34
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    The vagaries of the driver/bicyclist relationship result in the occasional flipped-bird from either party. Just be safe, the worst case is that the bicyclist falls off while you are behind them. Personally, I'd rather have a car pass me too close than to wait for a good time. – Carl Sep 14 at 21:15
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    @Mazura Probably any road that allows for an Amish carriage. A bike is faster than a carriage... Honestly, a bike is just a vehicle like a motorbike, and unless it is explicitly forbidden for some classes of vehicles, a road exists for all vehicles. – cmaster Sep 14 at 23:21
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    @Mazura - I know of no law in Minnesota that would prohibit bikes on a road simply because of a 60mph speed limit. Bikes are generally prohibited from "limited access" highways (ie, Interstates and the like), but they are allowed otherwise, unless there is signage to the contrary. And this is more or less the law in other states that I'm aware of. – Daniel R Hicks Sep 15 at 0:07
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    Is there a corollary question here - "how to pass cars while riding a bicycle ?" ? – Criggie Sep 15 at 13:14
up vote 56 down vote accepted

As long as you give a cyclist plenty of space, and obey traffic laws and drive safely in general you are OK.

1 meter or 3 feet is generally considered enough space when passing, but I know I prefer more. If you can move into another travel lane to overtake please do that.

Don't follow a cyclist too closely before overtaking, it's really scary for the cyclist. Similarly, don't pull in too soon. Pass decisively and reasonably quickly.

Overtake only when you have enough visibility, space and time to do so. I've had cars try to overtake me then have to abort because they didn't give themselves enough space, or overtook on a curve or hill where they could not see far enough ahead.

Be aware of anything that might force the cyclist away from the side of the road that reduces the separation between you and them: debris, potholes, tree branches etc.

Don't overtake if you wont actually get past the cyclist, such as when coming up to a junction or another situation where you would have to slow down or stop before fully overtaking. A particularly important variant of this is overtaking a cyclist then immediately turning right (or left in countries that drive on the left) and cutting across the cyclist's path.

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    But please, do not pass in the wrong lane when you can’t see that lane ahead of you! The risk is not worth the TEN SECONDS you’ll save. – WGroleau Sep 15 at 2:21
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    "Don't follow a cyclist too closely before overtaking", or for too long... They may feel pressured in to riding closer to the side of the road to make room for you. – Lamar Latrell Sep 15 at 12:52
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    In Germany, the save distance is considered to be 1.5 meter (~5 feet). – Sumyrda Sep 15 at 14:03
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    I would consider adding "Don't dilly-dally" to this answer. Drivers taking longer than necessary to pass is as irritating as it is terrifying. – SeldomNeedy Sep 17 at 3:30
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    @LamarLatrell just keep a safe distance. If the cyclist is a reasonable person they'll find a spot to get out of the way, as they'd rather not have you behind them. – Argenti Apparatus Sep 18 at 13:17

The problem is ambiguity. Sometimes you'll be unfairly judged by cyclists you're trying to pass. It will happen. Sometimes it helps to reduce the sting of the judgement with some perspective on what's going on.

When you’re on a bicycle, cars are death monsters. You spend your time trying to keep distance from them. You wish they would all just disappear. Even when they're trying to be friendly. It’s like you’re walking around in the woods, and suddenly you’re approached by a woodcutter who wants to have a friendly chat with you, but he’s carrying a running chainsaw casually in one hand, and walking really fast. What are his intentions?

Same sort of thing with drivers zooming up to you. People don’t even realize their mistake, because most people have never had it happen to them. Cross-country bicyclists deal with it all the time. (I am one of those.)

  • People will cruise up within inches of you at a stoplight and ask “where ya goin’?”, expecting an answer while you’re madly trying to determine if they intend to go straight or turn right when the light changes, potentially obliterating your bicycle and ending your life. If you don’t respond, you’re being rude. It sucks for everyone.

  • People will honk their horns at you as they drive by, startling you as you attempt to balance on a narrow strip of shoulder, and unless you look up into their window and parse their faces and their upraised hands, you’ll never know if they were honking because they want to encourage you and cheer you on, or because they hate the sight of you and intend to plow you into a ditch.

  • People will slow down to a crawl behind you, stacking up the traffic, even though you’ve given them the entire open lane to pass you by, while you ride over rocks and garbage in the gutter to make yourself as small as possible. They will hover there, and you have no idea if they are displaying chivalry and waiting for a clear oncoming lane so they can veer into it and give you a wide, respectful berth – or if they are malevolently cursing you for having the nerve to ride such a ridiculously slow contraption on their highway, and getting ready to scream at you or throw something at you from an open window as they shoot forward. You have no idea because you can hear them, but you can’t see them. Or if you have a rearview mirror (like I do, and like I recommend every cyclist obtain), you can see them well enough to know there's a car there, but you still can't see their faces.

In all of these situations, people are either trying to be model citizens—or they are planning to seriously endanger you—and you have absolutely no idea which it is until it happens.

I was driving my car across Nevada once. It was sweltering outside. I passed a cyclist slowly rolling in the other direction and I knew he would be thirsty. I turned around at a pullout and went back the other direction, passed him again, then went another half a mile ahead of him before I slowed down and stopped. Then I shut off the car, got out with the water bottle in my hand, clearly visible, and waited there while he closed the distance. It was a gallon of water and he was grinning ear-to-ear as I handed it to him, and sure enough he drank half of it on the spot, in one go. He'd underestimated the heat of the day and I knew he had another 50 miles to go. We had a great chat about touring and took a few photos together.

I wouldn't have known to approach him that way if I hadn't already had a dozen encounters of my own on long tours. And I have to take the rarity of this knowledge into account, for however long I ride: People just aren't going to know what it's like. It's always going to be ambiguous. They will always scare you without intending to. And you just gotta accept that your life is in their hands and hope they mean well.

So, it's a scary situation, and there aren't very many good ways to reduce that fear. But there are a few:

  1. When you're interacting with a bicyclist, never honk your horn. If they're new to the road, just the sheer surprise of it might make them accidentally steer into a ditch. With experienced riders, you can sometimes toot your horn after you've passed them, while also waving to show you're not furious, but usually just waving works as well. Believe me, they're got their eyes on you at that point, they'll probably see you wave. And that'll make them smile and feel relieved, which is great. We're all on an adventure together!

  2. When you see you need to pass them, be assured that they see you and are trying to do what they can to make that pass happen so you can both be rid of each other as soon as possible. With this is mind, try to hang back as far as you can while still keeping your own view of the situation in the oncoming lane. The closer you hover by a cyclist, and the longer the time, the more nervous they become. What's worse, sometimes long-range cyclists attract a lot of attention just because of their gear, and people will hover behind them just out of curiosity, which they find frustrating, especially when there are other cars around to complicate things. But that's not your situation, and it's rare in general.

    Do your best to drift back as far from them as you can until the opportunity to pass presents itself. The very fact that you are drifting back—that you were closer and now you're farther—will signal to them that you are taking things seriously and understand their perspective. That said, number three:

  3. Pass as soon as you safely can! Get out from behind them and get on your way as soon as the visibility and the space is adequate. If you're not on a busy road, chances are the cyclist was riding in relative peace and quiet until you appeared, and is eager to get back to that, rather than this constant state of panic. The longer you linger back there the higher his/her panic will rise. Every cyclist, everywhere, would much rather have you ahead of them than behind. All that deadly force is then pointed the other way!

Please employ these tactics. Every cyclist on the road will appreciate it, even if some of them still react badly in the moment. It's sometimes just a no-win situation that way. But believe me, most of us really get it—we're all drivers too (unless you're in a dense urban environment where cars are optional)—and we'll truly appreciate that you hung back, then made your move ASAP. The almost businesslike appearance of this when it's executed well is especially refreshing. Thank you for asking this!

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    +1 for the sixth paragraph, when I first read the question this is what came to mind. – Lamar Latrell Sep 15 at 12:59
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    Agreed with @LamarLatrell. The OP's irate cyclist may have felt the pressure of a car sitting behind them for too long. A cyclist's read on the vehicles behind them is weak at best, and that uncertainty can raise anxiety. Still, it sounds like the OP handled the situation safely. – zahbaz Sep 15 at 19:15
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    "ask “where ya goin’?”, expecting an answer while you’re madly trying to determine if they intend to go straight or turn right when the light changes" - maybe the driver has the same concern and is trying to find out the same thing? The answer they're expecting in that situation is probably "straight on" or "right" rather than "to the shops". – Dave Sep 15 at 21:08
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    Is a "pullout" the same as I'd (in Britain) call a "lay-by", i.e. a roadside parking space? – Toby Speight Sep 17 at 8:54
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    I wouldn't go as far to say never use the horn - but certainly not in close quarters. On our quiet single-track roads, a gentle warning when you're about a quarter mile away can be useful (especially in an electric car, which is about as loud as a bike). It's still easily misconstrued as, "I'm flying through - be out of my way before I arrive", so you need to be especially friendly when you pass (e.g. waving, or alternating indicator lights, or something). – Toby Speight Sep 17 at 8:57

My personal list in order of importance:

  1. Overtake when it’s safe to do so. This means no oncoming traffic (unless the lanes are wide enough to overtake even despite traffic) and that you can see far enough ahead. Don’t overtake on crossroads or crosswalks.
  2. Don’t drive too close behind. Bicycles usually don’t have braking lights, so you’ll need some time/distance to realize a cyclist is slowing down. Keeping distance also gives you time to brake in case the cyclist crashes (relatively unlikely but could still happen, especially on bad roads). Psychologically driving close behind can make a cyclist feel pressured and forced to speed up.
  3. Keep enough space when passing. How much also depends on speed and crosswinds.
  4. Accelerate decisively but not unnecessarily hard. Overtaking before the next turn or oncoming car is important, but don’t overdo it. Roaring (or screeching) engine noises and a big cloud of exhaust smoke isn’t fun.

Of course we can’t be sure if and what you did wrong to annoy the cyclist. It could even be that – in his opinion – you were overcareful and took too long. Which – obviously – is totally fine, legal and much better than not being careful enough.

  • I always do try to ere on the side of caution myself. Thank you – nostalgk Sep 14 at 19:43
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    Point 4 is one that's not well understood by non-cyclists. The driver thinks they are quickly getting clear of the bike (good), but doesn't realise this makes them appear very aggressive and frustrated. – Toby Speight Sep 17 at 8:59

You handled the situation perfectly.
Congrats, you belong to the good, vanishingly small minority who does.

You see, from my experience I would estimate the fraction of car drivers who obey the rules when overtaking bikes at about a single percent. At most. The vast majority of motorists seem to think that they have the right to overtake a bike even when there is oncoming traffic. And they think that bikes have no business riding further left than to allow being overtaking with about a foot distance between car and bike. If the bike is too far left from their point of view, a significant fraction of motorists will start honking, or shouting, or swearing.

This is the culture that we bikers have to cope with. And again, a sizable fraction of bikers believes that the view of these motorists is correct. They think they don't have a right to sufficient lateral safety distances. They think they are required to squeeze right next to parked cars, and to risk riding into opening doors and such, just to make it possible for cars to overtake them even when there is oncoming traffic. They will not question or ignore the honking of cars when they are "too far left", they will obediently move more to the right and feel sorry that they were "in the way" of the car.

I see that myself when I'm driving a car, and following a bike the way I'm supposed to do until I have enough clear space on the other side of the road to overtake safely. The normal reaction by the biker is that they are completely baffled by the situation. They are not used to a car following them, and not trying to overtake immediately at any cost. They may even perceive the following car as a threat, because it's just so uncommon that they think something must be very wrong.

This is what you've seen: A biker who a) did not know his rights, b) expected to be treated like being nonexistent, and c) who was feeling insecure due to not being ignored the way he expected.


Of course, the above is only to explain how the biker felt, and why he reacted in the way he did. What you did was perfectly correct, and please continue to drive like this. Because, this is exactly what we need: Both bikers and motorists who know the rules of the road, and abide by them! If your behavior were not the crass exception that it unfortunately is, the average bikers would react in a much less panicky way.


Some legal background
(This is what I know that it applies in my country, but I am not a lawyer. So, please take this with a grain of salt and refer to your local laws, regulations, and court decisions for better info.)

I don't know about your jurisdiction, but in my country, motorists are required to keep more lateral safety distance from bikes and motorcycles than from cars. For car-to-car, the minimum is one meter, for motorist-to-cycle, the minimum is 1.5 meters.

The ASCII graphic below shows the result of these lateral safety distance rules, along with a typical two lane road in my area:

Required distances in my country:   : Actual road in my country:
                                    :
parking cars                        : parking cars
-------------------------           : --------------------------
                      ^             :                         ^
1m safety distance    |             :                         |
                      |             :                         |
--------------------  |             :                         |
                      |             :                         |
                      |             :                         |
2m oncoming cars      |             : lane, oncoming traffic  |
(buses and trucks     |             :                         |
take 2.5m)            |             :                         |
                      |             :                         |
                      |             :                         |
--------------------  |             :                         |
                      |             :                         |
1m safety distance    |             : ===   ===   ===   ===   | 7m total
                      |             :                         |
--------------------  |             :                         |
                      |             :                         |
                      | 9m total    :                         |
                      |             :                         |
2m overtaking car     |             :                         |
                      |             : bike's lane             |
                      |             : (cars must wait)        |
                      |             :                         |
--------------------  |             :                         |
                      |             :                         |
                      |             :                         |
1.5m safety distance  |             :                         v
                      |             : --------------------------
                      |             : parking cars
--------------------  |             :
0.5m bike             |             :
--------------------  |             :
                      |             :
1m safety distance    |             :
                      v             :
-------------------------           :
parking cars                        :

You see, unless the bike manages to ride through the parked cars, there is simply no space to overtake a bike when there is oncoming traffic. The result is, that the entire lane effectively belongs to the bike, any motorist must wait for their chance to overtake.

  • 2
    The ASCII graphic looks very confusing to me. Does the picture represent a one-way road? If not, does the traffic go on the right or on the left side of the road? Why are overtaking cars required to be between bikes and buses/trucks? What are the widths of the two lanes on "actual road"? I see that the sum is 7; is it 3.5 m per "lane"? Does the drawing imply that the roads are actually narrower than required (7 m instead of 9 m)? Or is the difference in width because parking cars take more space than they should? – anatolyg Sep 16 at 16:01
  • @anatolyg The ASCII graphic shows the width of the road. Going from top to bottom (= left to right on the road), you first see some safety distance to the parking cars, then the oncoming traffic (generally cars, but sometimes trucks), then a safety distance between the oncoming traffic and the overtaking car, then the overtaking car itself, then the safety distance that the overtaking car has to keep from the bike, the bike itself, and another safety distance for the bike to avoid riding into opening doors and such. All distances are drawn to scale, and they add up to 9m. – cmaster Sep 16 at 17:45
  • @anatolyg The right part correlates this to the width of an actual road that's 7m wide: You have two lanes, one for each direction. Of these two lanes, one is occupied by oncoming traffic, the other is occupied by the bike. – cmaster Sep 16 at 17:45

It's possible that you drove too close behind the cyclist before passing; on the other hand, if you had been close before passing, you wouldn't have had time to get all the way over to the other lane before drawing level with the bike. So my guess is that either the cyclist thought you were closer than you were, or they were just being a jerk. Honestly, it sounds like you didn't do anything wrong.

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    I 100% support cyclists using any and all roads, it was just a county highway with high speeds and typically a lot of traffic; one I, myself, would never feel safe biking on, as someone who has biked fair distances. I often see bicyclists on the shoulder of those dense trafficked roads, but this particular one had highway speeds and no safe way for them to move off the road and thus commanded extra attention from me. I appreciate your answer – nostalgk Sep 14 at 19:42
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    OK, then, I agree that it doesn't sound like a good choice of route by the cyclist, at least if they had an alternative. I edited the extra information into the question and deleted that paragraph of my answer. – David Richerby Sep 14 at 19:49
  • I obviously cannot judge their intentions, but it is likely simply due to the fact that the roads around me are very far from bicycle friendly in terms of their layout, while simultaneously we have a large population of people who bike for sport. I, myself, would likely bike more if I felt the roads were adequately designed for it. – nostalgk Sep 14 at 19:52
  • Yep we've probably all had a car come up from behind, aggressively engine braking perhaps, and wondered "have they seen me ?" – Criggie Sep 15 at 0:08

Also be especially wary if you try to pass them in curves or near them. They need more room there than on a straight road. If the road isn't especially clean that is even more important. Grime, leaves and half-melted snow tends to accumulate on the side of the road and cyclists try to avoid that part in curves especially.

Roads are shared places, and its not just a cyclist and a driver.

Here's an almost head-on that happened near me yesterday:

Passing white car did the right thing by giving me room, but failed to consider the whole environment, and forced the blue ute to take evasive action.

Could it be the cyclist noticed something that you missed?

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    I recall cycling on a rural road in central MN some years back. Shoulder was unusable, so was riding in the right lane of the 2-lane road (perfectly legal). A car was approaching in the opposite lane and then a pickup truck sped up from behind the car and began to pass it. Luckily the car driver saw what was happening and jammed on the brakes, allowing the pickup to pass and get back in its lane before he reached me. – Daniel R Hicks Sep 15 at 1:04
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    On two lane rural roads all vehicles including bikes should burn headlights. On a bright day it's hard to see a car a half-mile away. – kevin cline Sep 15 at 18:10
  • @kevincline Totally agree - Daytime running lights are a very good idea. In that video I have two 10W motorbike sidelights as headlignts and a forklift flasher on the rear powered by a 12V SLA battery. Blue ute was coming from "under the sun" and had no lights. – Criggie Sep 15 at 22:50
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    Yeah, that's what happens when you drive on a rural two-lane with no headlights. Having a low sun behind you is the worst of all. – kevin cline Sep 16 at 6:17
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    Just as well the blue car was a ute and not something low-slung, and just as well the verge was flat and firm – Chris H Sep 17 at 15:22

What you did sounds right. From your description the only thing you could possibly have done wrong is get too close behind.

I think in France it's assumed (unless proven otherwise) that the faster class of vehicle is at fault. For example, a bike can evade a pedestrian (or horse-drawn vehicle) more easily than a pedestrian can evade a bike -- so it's up the bike to keep out of the way, the pedestrian inherently has right of way.

Similarly, if you drive in such a way the bike couldn't hit you even if they wanted to or even by accident -- e.g. even if they veer when you're overtaking them, or e.g. even if they fall when you're behind them -- then your driving is likely to be blameless.

Thank you for your patience, waiting for oncoming traffic pass, by the way. In my experience, cars often overtake with enough room when there's no oncoming traffic, but if there is oncoming traffic then they overtake anyway but with only inches to spare. I've never done it but my guess is that if your car so much as touches someone's handlebar as you drive past, then they must inevitably and instantly fall towards your car, perhaps under your wheel, or im front of anything that's following behind you.

The other answers have given good advice about the situation in which you find yourself driving near a cyclist, so I don't think anything more needs to be added to that.

Nonetheless, I think it is important to consider the broader picture in which motorist–cyclist interactions like the one described in the question take place, and whether the question in the post is the best starting point if one's concern as a motorist is to present the least the risk to cyclists.

So my answer is a "frame challenge" — it challenges the frame under which the question was asked in the post by addressing the broader context.

Applying the hierarchy of controls

If you've ever been involved in any kind of health and safety analysis, then you've probably seen a picture like this:

Hierarchy of Controls: elimination > substitution > engineering controls > administrative controls > personal protective equipment

The "hierarchy of controls" is a system of concepts for dealing with hazards, the idea being that there is a range of approaches that vary in effectiveness, and you should try, as far as possible and practical, to employ the more effective approaches.

If you considering how best to overtake a cyclist, you are applying an administrative control — changing the way you behave in order to reduce the risk. But the hierarchy picture shows that there are more effective approaches that should be considered first. I'll take them in order going up the pyramid.

Engineering controls

The idea here is to move the hazard away from people: in this case to separate the motor vehicle from the cyclist. There are two ways we might do this:

  1. The simplest thing to do is to take different routes.

    Cyclists already put in a great deal of effort to select routes with less motor traffic. When I am planning a cycle route, I spend a lot of time with maps, planning and revising my route to make use of quieter roads. Unfortunately where I live the busiest roads are also the most direct, so taking a quieter route involves accepting a longer journey, or one that involves more hills, or worse road surfaces. As a motorist you won't be aware of this effort, because if I succeed in finding a quiet route then you will never see me!

    In the situation described in the post the cyclist was likely forced to use the dual carriageway by the lack of a practical alternative. Cycling in heavy motor traffic is very stressful, as you constantly feel in danger of being killed, and in this kind of situation intemperate responses to minor errors are to be expected, because even a minor error could be fatal.

    So just as cyclists put pick quieter routes to avoid motor traffic, motorists could do the opposite. This means picking busier routes wherever possible, especially motorways or freeways where cyclists are banned or discouraged, and avoiding residental streets, "rat runs", and country lanes, except where necessary for access.

  2. The second approach is to change the infrastructure, to ensure that cyclists have alternative routes, and that they are segregated from motorists when they have to follow the same route. It's hard to have much effect here as an individual, but you could join campaigns for safe cycle infrastructure, or write to your elected representatives expressing support for cycle infrastructure. There is often an impression that motorists object to any kind of provision for cyclists because it takes road space away that rightfully belongs to motor vehicles. Anything you can do to combat this prejudice may be politically helpful.

Substitution

The idea here is to substitute something less hazardous: in this case, to replace your car with something that wouldn't be so dangerous for cyclists in the event of a botched overtake or collision. For example, could you make some of your journeys by bicycle instead of motor vehicle? Collisions between two cyclists generally result in less severe injuries than collisions between a cyclist and a motor vehicle.

Elimination

The best approach is to eliminate the hazard completely. Could you avoid making some of your journeys altogether, for example by combining trips, by getting deliveries, by substituting activities closer to home, or sharing trips with other motorists? Or could you make some of your journeys by walking or public transport, modes that will not require you to overtake a cyclist at all?

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