Changes to the Highway Code

As of today (Saturday 29th January) new changes to the Highway Code have been introduced that aim to better protect vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists, and horse riders.

The Department of Transport has said that ‘one of the greatest barriers for people choosing to cycle or walk is safety, and perceptions of safety. In line with the government’s ambition to increase the number of people choosing to travel on foot or by bike, the proposed alterations seek to improve safety for cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders when using the highway.’

The changes to the Highway Code were first consulted on in mid-2020, alongside the Gear Change raft of announcements to increase active travel. During the 12 weeks of consultation 21,000 responses were submitted, the majority of which were in favour of the changes.

No National Campaign So Far

Whilst the changes to the code are welcomed, and should make using the nation’s highways safer for vulnerable road users, many have raised their concerns at the lack of major official publicity for the changes. Many of the changes proposed will only improve safety if all road users are aware of the changes – having only some users aware could lead to confusion and even dangerous situations.

Instead the communication void has been filled by various media outlets using the changes to spin various headlines that range between dubious, wrong, and outright provocative. It’s too late for a timely publicity campaign to correctly inform the nation ahead of the changes, but some outlets have been doing their best including Better Streets Ealing’s great animations and Peter Walker’s fantastic take down of the media hysteria. We’ve also spoken on BBC News at Six, and with Georgey Spanswick on BBC York about the changes – listen again on BBC Sounds from 1h09.

We have contacted North Yorkshire Police about the changes, who have told us they intend to publish content on them from today, and that they understand a national campaign is planned.

Key Changes

We’ve had a quick look at some of the key changes that affect cyclists below. A more in-depth summary of the changes is available on the DfT website, or you can view a table comparing the new text against the old.

The full Highway Code is available to view on the government’s website for free, and has been updated as of this morning to show the changes. 

Hierarchy of Road Users

The Hierarchy of Road Users is a new rule that is brought in that recognises the difference between those that are most vulnerable in a collision, and those that have potential to cause the greatest harm in that collision. The new rule can be envisaged as a pyramid, with the pedestrians as the most vulnerable at the top, followed by cyclists and horse riders, then motorcyclists, with drivers of vehicles of greatest potential harm such as cars, and large vehicles  such as vans, buses and HGVs at the bottom.

It is not carte blanche for pedestrians and cyclists to forgo any sense of personal responsibility and act how they want – despite what some may be saying.

Graphical representation of the hierarchy of responsibility, showing Greater Vulnerability at the top and Greater Responsibility at the bottom.
Users are listed from top to bottom as; Pedestrians, Cyclists/Horse Riders, Motorcyclists/Scooters, Cars, Vans, Buses/HGVS

Rule H1

It is important that ALL road users are aware of The Highway Code, are considerate to other road users and understand their responsibility for the safety of others.

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

Pedestrians Can Cross

Under the hierarchy, cyclists rightly have a greater responsibility over pedestrians – so it’s important to know about the new rule H2.

Previously, there was no obligation to let pedestrians that are waiting to cross a junction cross. The new rule now means that if you want to pull in or out of a junction which a pedestrian is waiting to cross you should let them cross first.

Rule H2 from the Highway Code
Image used under Open Government Licence v3.0

The rule also changes zebra crossings, so that you now must give way to a pedestrian waiting to use a zebra crossing – previously, and surprisingly to many, it was only if they were already crossing. The rule also extends to cyclists on parallel crossing – a zebra crossing with cycle path running parallel to it.

Rule H2

At a junction you should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross a road into which or from which you are turning.

You MUST give way to pedestrians on a zebra crossing, and to pedestrians and cyclists on a parallel crossing (see Rule 195).

Pedestrians have priority when on a zebra crossing, on a parallel crossing or at light controlled crossings when they have a green signal.

You should give way to pedestrians waiting to cross a zebra crossing, and to pedestrians and cyclists waiting to cross a parallel crossing.

Horse riders should also give way to pedestrians on a zebra crossing, and to pedestrians and cyclists on a parallel crossing.

Cyclists should give way to pedestrians on shared use cycle tracks and to horse riders on bridleways.

Only pedestrians may use the pavement. Pedestrians include wheelchair and mobility scooter users.

Pedestrians may use any part of the road and use cycle tracks as well as the pavement, unless there are signs prohibiting pedestrians.

Protection from Left Hooks

Left hooks are a common occurrence on our roads, and anyone who has spent time cycling on our busy roads will have a few scary near misses they can recall – if not worse. A left hook being when a vehicle overtakes a cyclist before immediately turning left onto a side road.

Rule H3 from the Highway Code
Image used under Open Government Licence v3.0

Whilst overtaking immediately beforehand has alway been prohibited (rule 182), the new rule H3 introduces a new clearer rule specifically relating to vulnerable road users. The rule is also just as applicable to vehicles turning right, across the road, into a junction.

Rule H3

You should not cut across cyclists, horse riders or horse drawn vehicles going ahead when you are turning into or out of a junction or changing direction or lane, just as you would not turn across the path of another motor vehicle. This applies whether they are using a cycle lane, a cycle track, or riding ahead on the road and you should give way to them.

Do not turn at a junction if to do so would cause the cyclist, horse rider or horse drawn vehicle going straight ahead to stop or swerve.

You should stop and wait for a safe gap in the flow of cyclists if necessary. This includes when cyclists are:
• approaching, passing or moving off from a junction
• moving past or waiting alongside stationary or slow-moving traffic
• travelling around a roundabout

Do the Dutch Reach

The final rule we’ll be covering is the introduction of advice to do the Dutch Reach. The Dutch Reach is a method of opening a vehicle door using the opposite hand to the side the door is on. So called as it is instructed in the Netherlands as a way of encouraging people to look for cyclists before opening the door.

A driver uses their left hand to open the car door, this turns their body around so that they look behind them to see an approaching cyclist
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license: L Herman

Contrary to one newspaper headline, people aren’t going to be find specifically for opening the door with the wrong hand – but they could find themselves in trouble if they do open the door on a cyclist, but this is nothing new as rule 239 has always stated ’you MUST ensure you do not hit anyone when you open your door. Check for cyclists or other traffic’. The Dutch Reach is just a new technique to make this easier.

Rule 239

The following paragraphs is added;

Where you are able to do so, you should open the door using your hand on the opposite side to the door you are opening; for example, use your left hand to open a door on your right-hand side. This will make you turn your head to look over your shoulder. You are then more likely to avoid causing injury to cyclists or motorcyclists passing you on the road, or to people on the pavement.

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