Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What's a passing grade when passing?

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A few days ago I got a letter from a reader in Oregon. She had received a speeding ticket while overtaking a loaded logging truck, and felt the officer had acted inappropriately.

The only clear passing zone was on a downgrade, she said. The truck had been slow on the previous hills, but was gaining speed. She ran her BMW 328 up to 85 mph in order to get by safely.

The letter-writer explained that she had stayed in the oncoming lane long enough to get well clear of the truck, which by then would have been doing around 70 mph, and to establish a bit of a cushion.

You don't need 50 shades of grey -- just a couple, and a bit of experience -- to understand that my correspondent was likely correct and the officer wrong. (She also noted that her car was in excellent condition, had new winter tires, and her luggage was neatly stowed.)

Now we get into a situation where an officer has to use judgement and be flexible, which may or may not be part of that individual's training, personality or mood on any particular day.

There were a couple of ways that the lady in the BMW could have stayed within the letter of the law. The first would have been not to overtake the truck at all, or to wait for a passing lane. That would have required that she sit behind the logging truck as it lost speed on the upgrades, and merely follow along the rest the time.

Because of the mediocre spray-suppression systems on most North American trucks, a safe following distance could have been as far back as six seconds in travel time. Closer than that and a barrage of road debris starts to hack away at headlights, windshields and paintwork. Had she maintained that safe distance, other vehicles undoubtedly would have passed her to fill the gap. Any chance to use an overtaking lane effectively would be gone.

Another way to avoid breaking the law would have been to stay within the speed limit while passing the truck. This is so silly it barely warrants discussion. The whole point of safe overtaking on a two-lane road is to minimize exposure time, not to increase it.

Another reason why the officer could have used better judgement was in assessing my correspondent's vehicle. Let's say she had made the same manoeuvre in an older pickup truck, on worn tires. A ticket would have been justified, simply based on dynamics. A pickup truck is useful in that it combines a back porch and an engine, but it's less dynamically capable than a good road car. This is why many countries have lower speed limits for utility vehicles.

My letter-writer concluded by saying that, in the same situation, she would still break the speed limit to safely pass the truck. I suspect quite a few of you would make the same choice.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2013 F10

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