Who Should swerve and to where to avoid the head-on crash in the same lane?

This is not an easy question to answer. We referred this rather interesting question to well-known crash reconstructionist Stan Bezuidenhout and would like to share his response!


“Watching vehicles overtake in places they should not be made me think about the following:

  1. If I’m in my lane and faced a vehicle head-on – 1a. which way would I swerve? 1b. which way would the other vehicle swerve?
  2. If I’m the overtaking vehicle – 2a. Do I swerve? 2b. Do I stay in the lane and move closer to the vehicle I’m overtaking?

We know this is a problem that won’t go away easily – can tips be made available on TV etc BEFORE Christmas holidays come? Another problem is drivers that “KNOW THE ROAD” as they travel it most days (eg George/Oudtshoorn) – but then the saying of “familiarity breeds contempt” is true and other drivers slowing down on a section of road UNFAMILIAR to them get labelled as slow/bad drivers.

Just a thought for tips for the upcoming holidays.



“Faked Right Syndrome” and how to prevent it…

The questions posed by Ms Liebenberg were very insightful and rather complex to answer at the same time. Her awareness of this and her request fills me with confidence regarding the future of road safety in South Africa. If road users are capable of approaching an issue that complex with so much insight, then perhaps all our combined efforts are starting to pay off.

Let me set the stage for my answers and clarify some core concepts that need to be understood in this context. Firstly, there are legal issues; According to the so-called “reasonable man” principle, there are some duties on a driver when faced with this situation (a vehicle on your side of the road).

Be that as it may, the challenge is (more often and not) proving your innocence in court and defending your actions. There are circumstances under which improper investigation at the scene and a lack of knowledge for some critical syndromes at play can expose you to risk of prosecution or even a guilty verdict.

Let’s just explore this “the other car is on my side” scenario:

Imagine driving down the road (perhaps at night), on a two-lane stretch. You see a vehicle approaching and become aware that this vehicle is actually on your side of the road or drifting over towards your side, predicting a head-on collision.

Now you have some options to consider. You could:

  1. a)    Stop dead in the road (and risk still being run into).
  2. b)    Move over or swerve to the left (away from the approaching threat) but what if the other car keeps moving over and “follows you” until a collision occurs?

There is a third option and you will be surprised at how many people choose this option: You can argue that – since this approaching vehicle is in your lane – you would be best served to move (or swerve) over into his (the wrong) lane so that you can both pass each other “on the wrong side” but at least prevent a collision.

The problem is when that other vehicle notices at the last minute (wakes up, looks up or responds top your movement) and then tries to “fix the problem” by swerving back to its own lane. Then you collide head-on with that other vehicle, on ITS side of the road!

This is called Faked Right Syndrome (Originally Faked Left Syndrome, in the USA) and places you in a very serious predicament: You would need to PROVE that you were acting in self-preservation and not illegally travelling on the “Wrong” side of the road, in the face of approaching traffic.

How will you prove this? Quite frankly, it is rather complex and would require proper forensic analysis with a specific interest in PDOF (Principle Direction of Force), Crush (damage depth) analysis, Departure Angles, Occupant Kinematics and Vehicle Dynamics (rotation, etc). It is possible, but it can only be done if very detailed at-scene investigation and measurements are done properly.

But this article is about advice on how to prevent it – not analyse it. So we return to the questions received from Ms. Liebenberg. She writes:

Watching vehicles overtake in places they should not be made me think about the following:

  1. If I’m in my lane and faced a vehicle head-on –

1a. which way would I swerve?

1b. which way would the other vehicle swerve?

In terms of law, you are required to do at least the following things:

  1. a)    Flash your headlights to alert the other driver.
  2. b)    Blow your car horn (hooter) to alert the other driver.
  3. c)    Apply brakes and slow down or stop to prevent a collision.
  4. d)    Move over to the left to prevent a collision.

Realistically, however, few people would be in a position to do all this at once (don’t get me started on driver training standards!) and there are cases where these options are not all available.

Flashing your headlights might be useless if an approaching driver has fallen asleep or is unconscious due to a medical emergency. But this is one thing that you can do without too much effort. Flashing your lights can typically not “go wrong” too badly.

Blowing your car horn is only effective if the other driver is conscious or has windows open (in cases where vehicles are loud, like trucks). But again – this is easy enough and cannot really go “wrong” or conspire against your desired outcome.

When it comes to applying brakes, our analysis of these kinds of collisions often prove to be the last resort. This is where driver attitude starts introducing a component of psychology that requires a lot of work to improve.

In our experience, on roads in South Africa, people tend to react less defensively when they believe they are “right.” We have actually attended and investigated crash scenes where vehicles collided head-on with more than two vehicle widths’ worth of space the driver “that is right” could have used to move over and prevent the collision.

We call this passive-aggressive vigilantism. People tend to believe that they will “do what everyone else does” and “refuse to submit to someone who is wrong.” This is the passive-aggressive component. People tend to have the “well, then I will just stay right here and do nothing” approach. Then they use this and extend their “argument” to include an additional component: “I will teach you a lesson.” Road users tend to take the law into their own hands (doling out punishment) by opting not to be “intimidated into submission.” We have personally seen this result in multiple fatalities in numerous cases we investigated.

So the next piece of advice we can give is: “There are no living heroes.” Essentially, road users need to understand that being right is no guarantee of immortality. You die when you are injured badly enough, whether you are right or wrong.

There is no moral in survival – you should do whatever it takes to survive – and this includes braking (and being the loser of the game of chicken). So people need to learn to be willing to “accept defeat” and to survive with that title rather than “dying while being right.”

A message on your tombstone that reads “Here lies John. He never backed off from a fight. He proved this. Once.” will not be nearly as much fun as seeing your loved ones and family for another day. Period.

Swerving or moving over is also an action you can take (notwithstanding Faked Right Syndrome). If you move over to the point of no return but fail to slow down or stop at the same time, you might be the very source of adequate energy to cause a fatality. The less SPEED you have, in relation to the other vehicle, the greater your chance (and theirs) of recovery. So slowing down and moving over remains the best and only option, really.

But there are cases where moving to the left is simply not possible.

One example is where there is a cliff to your left and where moving or swerving to the left would expose you to falling over the edge. It might also not be possible if there is a wall or embankment on your left and where there is no shoulder.

In these cases, moving over to the “wrong” side might be your only option. Our advice would be to rather fit an in-vehicle video recording device in your vehicle (they are now freely available and a wide range of models and features are included in options). This way – if this (Faked Right Syndrome) ever happens to you, evidence would be available to clear your name and justify your actions.

We live in a complex world and crash cases are enjoying more court time and prosecutor skill now than ever before. More and more crash cases are relying on expert testimony. You’d be best served to ensure that you take steps to have evidence available.

Miss Liebenberg further asks:

  1. If I’m the overtaking vehicle –

2a. Do I swerve?

2b. Do I stay in the lane and move closer to the vehicle I’m overtaking?

In short – if you are the overtaking vehicle and you have been caught by surprise (there are places in the country where broken barrier lines are installed in locations where it is actually not safe to overtake) – you should brake as hard as is safe to do so and return to your lane as quickly as possible. But there are additional elements here as well:

Firstly, you should never overtake in a way that does not enable you to see far enough ahead (with your own eyes – inconsiderate of whether you are “allowed to” or not). Get to know your vehicle and its performance characteristics and consider your limitations (your eyes might perform less effectively at night). Let good sense be your guide: If you cannot see it, you cannot plan for it, so assume there IS a vehicle approaching at all times and act accordingly – whether you can “see its lights” or not.

But then we also need to address the issue of the vehicle being overtaken. We have seen – too many times – how one vehicle overtakes another and makes an error in judgement, facing an approaching vehicle, then the vehicle to the left (being overtaken) does not actively contribute to the risk mitigation strategies of the overtaking driver. If you are being overtaken and you see an approaching vehicle, immediately move over to your left (safely, of course) and allow the overtaking vehicle space and opportunity to return to your lane safely. Apply brakes and fall back if needed. This simple act of due consideration could save a life. Or many.

Miss Liebenberg adds:

Another problem is drivers that “KNOW THE ROAD” as they travel it most days (eg George/Oudtshoorn) – but then the saying of “familiarity breeds contempt” is true and other drivers slowing down on a section of road UNFAMILIAR to them get labelled as slow/bad drivers.

In response to this, we should also look at road design and signage. If roads are poorly marked, ineffectively regulated (no signs and warnings) or poorly maintained, unfamiliar drivers will be forced to employ risk homeostatic strategies. They’ll have to do something to reduce their (perceived or real) risks.

When you then combine this with familiar drivers (moving faster) you get stuck with something called Traffic Friction. Traffic Friction is the effect on the combined global speed of movement on traffic as the result of the interference caused when slower and faster drivers use the same section of road.

The outcome is that slower (perhaps intimidated) drivers start slowing down even more for fear of getting “run over” by the other “maniacs” on the road. The faster drivers, in turn, get frustrated by the slower drivers and start “queuing up” behind them. If some drivers are then more confident or aggressive than others you start seeing some being willing to overtake several or tens of slower vehicles, increasing risk beyond reasonable levels.

If you also consider slower drivers due to their involvement with their cell phones, smoking cigarettes, putting on make-up or engaging in other distracting acts, you have a recipe for disaster yet again. Other drivers now become frustrated, aggression levels increase and the propensity for taking risk increases enormously. But the original concerns or root cause was the “slower driver” and not the “speed demon.”

Finally, there seems to be a general lack of awareness for the simple “Keep Left, Pass Right” rule. When slower drivers choose the “fast lane” and faster drivers get frustrated and start “swerving in front of other road users” to “teach them a lesson,” we have yet another recipe for disaster.

The best advice we can give would include planning (giving yourself enough time to travel), sound judgement (become familiar with your vehicle and know its capabilities and limits), obey the law (Keep Left, Pass Right), adhere to speed limits (60Km/h in a 120Km/h zone is as dangerous as driving at 160 Km/h in a 60 Km/h zone) and be courteous. The road does not, in fact, belong to you alone.

If you consider yourself a visitor to our roads, as is everyone else and allow yourself to “allow others to use the road,” you would immediately find yourself slowing down, relaxing and just “letting traffic be…” Stay calm, keep smiling and remember that most other road users do not actually know you in person.

If you can follow these simple steps you can enhance your well-being, enjoy travel more and stay with us just a while longer.

Stan Bezuidenhout

Forensic Collision Homicide Reconstructionist

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