This month sees the most radical update to the Highway Code in years, including the creation of a new “Hierarchy of Road Users”. Below, we highlight the main changes.
According to research carried out by the AA among its members, two thirds of drivers are unaware of significant changes to the Highway Code, which are due to come into effect at the end of this month. The primary aim of the changes is to provide greater protection to vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.
What is the Highway Code?
The Highway Code is a set of advice, information, guides, and rules for all road users in the United Kingdom, not just drivers but also the most vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders, mobility scooter users, and motorcyclists. It includes information on road signs and markings, vehicle markings, and general road safety. There are also annexes dealing with vehicle maintenance and security, licence requirements, documentation, and penalties. The code is updated regularly to reflect current practices.
Is the Highway Code law?
Many people are unclear of the legal status of the Highway Code. Although it’s not ‘the law’, it includes some legal requirements. These are easily identified by wording such as ‘must’ and ‘must not’, and ‘do’ and ‘do not’, as opposed to ‘should’ or ‘should not’.
A failure to comply with advice or guidance which is not a legal requirement, cannot result in you being fined or prosecuted. However, it can be used as evidence to establish liability in a civil claim for damages.
New Highway Code rules
The main focus of the new Highway Code rules will be a new risk-based hierarchy giving priority to vulnerable road users, defined as follows:
“The ‘Hierarchy of Road Users’ is a concept that places those road users most at risk in the event of a collision at the top of the hierarchy. The hierarchy does not remove the need for everyone to behave responsibly. The road users most likely to be injured in the event of a collision are pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders and motorcyclists, with children, older adults and disabled people being more at risk.
“Everyone suffers when road collisions occur, whether they are physically injured or not. But those in charge of vehicles that can cause the greatest harm in the event of a collision bear the greatest responsibility to take care and reduce the danger they pose to others. This principle applies most strongly to drivers of large goods and passenger vehicles, vans/minibuses, cars/taxis and motorcycles.
“Cyclists, horse riders and drivers of horse drawn vehicles likewise have a responsibility to reduce danger to pedestrians.
“None of this detracts from the responsibility of ALL road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders, to have regard for their own and other road users’ safety.
“Always remember that the people you encounter may have impaired sight, hearing or mobility and that this may not be obvious.”
A new priority for pedestrians is created at junctions. Drivers, motorcyclists, horse riders and cyclists should give way to pedestrians who are crossing or waiting to cross a road into which – or from which – they are turning. In addition, they should give way to pedestrians waiting to cross the road on a zebra crossing and pedestrians and cyclists waiting to cross on a parallel crossing. Interestingly, in respect of zebra crossings, the current rule says that drivers are only required to give way if the pedestrian is already on the crossing.
Cyclists and equestrians
A new priority for cyclists and equestrians is created when cars are turning. A driver should not cut across a cyclist, horse rider, or a horse-drawn vehicle that is proceeding ahead when the driver is turning into or out of a junction, or if they are changing direction or lane. This applies irrespective of whether the cyclist is using a cycle lane/track or riding on the road; the driver should give way to them.
Drivers should also leave a gap of at least 1.5 metres when overtaking a cyclist at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour and give cyclists more space when overtaking them at higher speeds.
Another rule aims to address the danger of opening a car door into the path of a cyclist. Drivers and passengers should use the hand furthest from the door to open it. This is often referred to as the ‘Dutch Reach’ and ensures the person opening the door is looking over their shoulder, making them less likely to miss a cyclist.
This year will also see stricter rules on using mobile phones while driving, with those in breach facing £200 fixed penalties and six points on their driving licence.
“With many more people having taken to the roads on bikes since first lockdown, it feels the right time for the Highway Code to change to encourage and protect vulnerable road users on the highway. We should also not forget that the push to encourage more environmentally friendly forms of transport will increasingly see even more people walking, cycling, and using e-scooter schemes.
“As a cyclist, I hope these new rules will allow motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and others to co-exist safely. The code now clearly highlights a hierarchy of road users, appreciating that certain road users will be much more severely injured should a collision occur. My worry, however, is the current lack of awareness of these new rules.”