Proposed changes to the Highway Code: will they improve safety for cyclists and other vulnerable road users?

27 September 2021

Over the summer, the government suggested changes to the Highway Code to improve road safety for vulnerable road users. If the proposals are approved, they will change how pedestrians, cyclists and motorists are expected to behave on Britain’s roads.

The full proposals are well worth a read and can be found here. There are more proposed changes than can be set out in a single article, but the key new changes include:

  • The concept of a ‘hierarchy of road users’, to ensure that modes of transport that are potentially more dangerous have greater responsibility for road safety. The hierarchy runs from pedestrians, followed by cyclists, horse riders, motorcyclists then drivers, with those most likely to be injured in collisions placed at the top of the hierarchy and those at the bottom (i.e. drivers) expected to have greater responsibility to reduce the danger they pose to others.
  • Pedestrians will have increased priority at junctions over all other road users, including cyclists. Currently other road users only have to give way to pedestrians who have started to cross junctions; under the new rule they should also give way when pedestrians are waiting to cross. The same applies in relation to zebra crossings, where currently traffic technically only must stop when a pedestrian has moved onto the crossing.
  • Drivers and motorcyclists should not cut across cyclists going ahead when turning into or out of a junction, changing direction or changing lanes. If turning at a junction would cause a cyclist to stop or swerve, it must not be done. Drivers and motorcyclists should stop and wait for a safe gap in the flow of cyclists if necessary.
  • Cyclists can choose to ride in the centre of their lanes in certain situations, such as on quiet roads or at the approach to junctions or road narrowings. At junctions with no separate lights or cycle facilities, cyclists should position themselves in the centre of the lane. The positioning of cyclists is not explicitly discussed in the current version of the Code.

So far, reaction to the proposals has been mixed. This is understandable: different road users have different views on what is and is not acceptable on the roads, what needs to stay the same and what needs to be improved.

Some comments highlighted in the media, such that cyclists are being given ‘carte blanche’ to run red lights and generally otherwise do as they please, are unhelpful and misrepresent the changes being proposed (there is no provision for cyclists to ignore traffic signals, which would clearly not improve road safety).

In terms of my own road use, I am part-cyclist, pedestrian and car driver, so I feel mine is a broad church in terms of the changes I would like to see on the roads. The proposals seem to be overall a good first step, in so far as it always positive to see the safety of vulnerable road users being considered. More of us are now actively taking up cycling and other forms of exercise as a means of travel. This is beneficial to our own health, road congestion as well as the environment, and should not be at a detriment to our own personal safety. This will inevitably mean that the way we all act on the road will have to adapt.

The changes put forward generally reflect good road safety practice which (hopefully) many road users are doing already. It is heartening that the proposed changes include the Code actively encouraging the ‘Dutch Reach’ to protect cyclists from incidents of car-dooring (see the helpful article from Cycling UK here on what this involves). This is an example of an easy and practical habit which some road users will have already made a part of their daily routine, as a result of first-hand experience.

This is where the challenge will lie: putting this and other practical proposals to improve road safety at the forefront of everyone’s minds and integrating them into their road habits, without having to necessarily rely on first-hand experience.

Inevitably not every current road user is going to sit down and read an amended Highway Code. The Department of Transport announced the proposed changes along with a £338 million funding package to boost cycling and walking. Some of this would be well-spent on campaigns clearly communicating simple things we can all do to improve safety on our roads. We are all familiar with the dangers of speeding, but how many of us could explain what the Dutch Reach is (and not make a potentially rude guess)?

Changes to the Highway Code which protect pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users are an encouraging first step. The next challenge will be communicating them to the public and placing them at the forefront of all road users’ minds, if they are to translate into real safety improvements on our roads.

Further Information

If you have any questions or concerns about the topics discussed in this blog, please contact any member of the Medical Negligence & Personal Injury team.


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