The problem of slow overtaking lorries (Elephant racing)

Bear with me while I stray off topic from personal finance for a moment whilst I have a personal rant…!

ImageThe Problem

I’m sure we’ve all seen it on motorways and dual carriageways. One lorry at maximum speed (dictated by the on-board speed limiter) slowly catches another lorry, whose maximum speed is very slightly lower. The marginally faster lorry finds a gap (hopefully!) and pulls out to overtake. With only a small speed difference, and hills/traffic having a further impact, this manoeuvre can take quite some time and distance. During this time, our motorway is reduced to a single lane, and our dual carriageway is completely locked out by 2 slow moving vehicles alongside each other. The phenomenon has exploded since the introduction of speed limiters and even has a name – “elephant racing”

Further issues are caused too – concealing road signs and making motorway joining / exiting more difficult, and speed limiters sending truck drivers to sleep for example

The discretionary solution

Well, it would be nice if common sense prevailed and the faster of the 2 vehicles would adjust his speed to simply follow the slower vehicle, or the slower vehicle would slow down when s/he realises they are being overtaken, thus expediting the overtake. The lorry driver may lose perhaps a minute doing this, but the vehicles behind would each gain a minute each, so overall a net gain to humankind is achieved, whilst also benefiting from the increased safety of spending less time overtaking. Clearly though, this does not happen and both lorries continue to travel flat out, using the speed-limiter to dictate their speed, and it may take miles to complete the move

(As an aside, an interesting discourse of the challenges caused by HGV speed limiters is at )

A more extreme solution

Trials are already underway that simply ban lorries from overtaking, with reactions ranging from delight from regular motorists, to despair from hauliers, truckers and businesses:

However, we don’t have enough traffic police to enforce this, even if it was the best solution. Lorries would soon be ignoring this rule and getting away with it if was implemented nationwide (just like car and van drivers seem comfortable travelling at 80mph – it becomes a norm, even though it is illegal. I also can’t remember a time when a police car pulled over a middle-lane hog either, which can be as disruptive as elephant racing, but I digress)

Surely there’s a compromise?

If we can expedite the overtaking manoeuvre, then potentially we would reduce both HGV driver & haulier business frustrations, as well as the frustrations of other road users. I’ll assume that we’ll continue to bow down to the EU nanny state and that speed limiters are here to stay (although there are arguments to suggest that elephant racing would be all but eliminated, and general road safety increased if there were no speed limiters), and instead suggest the following…

HGV’s electronic speed limiters can be programmed (some companies reduce the maximum speed below the usual 56mph to save fuel. HGV’s are permitted to reach 50 mph on dual carriageways and 60mph on motorways). Utilising a proximity sensor (eg GPS, or transmitter technology such as that used in tyre pressure sensors, etc), and a suitable software interface, the electronic speed limiters could be temporarily adjusted when the sensors detect an overtake, to reduce the max speed by, say, 5mph of the vehicle being overtaken, and/or temporarily increase the max available speed of the overtaking vehicle, until the proximity sensors indicated that the manoeuvre is complete, when “normal” settings would apply again. This would guarantee a real speed differential between the vehicles, and reduce the time and distance required to complete an overtaking manoeuvre – increasing safety and reducing congestion whilst allowing for a dynamic traffic environment rather than a string of HGV’s banned from overtaking and travelling at 49mph in lane one



3 responses to “The problem of slow overtaking lorries (Elephant racing)

  1. As a fairly new HGV Class one driver, it’s something that does seem a bit silly, my “colleagues” who are among the biggest critics of centre lane cruisers are no better, as you point out. If I am being overtaken by another big lorry I eas up a tad, and it only takes seconds, not a minute as you suggest. We are tought this practice in the theory books. If we all did it the road would be happier place. It puts me off overtaking on a marginally slower lorry for this reason, as I’m very uncomfortable about the time it takes. We are meant be “professional” drivers so should drive accordingly.
    David Punton

    • Hi David thank you for your comment – I know there are some great and considerate class 1 drivers out there and I’m so pleased to hear from at least one of you. I hope you don’t get too frustrated overtaking your colleagues who aren’t as mindful as yourself

      Thanks again and I wish you a safe and happy career

      Kind regards

      • Hi Perry
        Thanks for your reply. I’m sure all the drivers who don’t ease up when being passed would like the idea of knowing the the HGV in front that’s taken miles and miles to catch will ease off when he makes his move. The same as when driving on A roads to pull over when it’s safe to do so and let other following traffic passed.
        Driving down from Aberdeen last night I was overtaken by two class ones, I was doing 52 mph, approximately 40 miles on there they are just ahead, no gain in all that time.
        I don’t know if you are aware, but in most HGV’s now there is software that keeps a eye on our driving and will send the boss an email if it detects harsh braking, acceleration or cornering.
        Happy motoring.


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