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Highway Code changes to create new ‘hierarchy of road users’

A new version of the Highway Code that will prioritise pedestrians and cyclists through a new ‘hierarchy’ has been announced by the Goverment.

The DfT is exploring the introduction of a ‘hierarchy of road users’ to ensure those who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they may pose to others

Planned for publication in the autumn, the new Highway Code would look to introduce a hierarchy of road users with pedestrians at the top.

Proposed changes, which will require Parliamentary approval, include clarifying existing rules on pedestrian priority on pavements and setting out that drivers and riders should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road.

The Government also wants to establish guidance for drivers on safe passing distances and speeds when overtaking cyclists or horse riders.

The changes follow last year’s consultation to improve safety for cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders, and form part of a new £338m package to further support the current boom in active travel following trends seen in lockdown.

The Department for Transport’s new Summer of Cycling and Walking document also includes infrastructure upgrades and new requirements to ensure that active travel schemes’ effects are properly assessed.

It comes after last year saw cycling rise more than in the previous 20 years put together, with the number of miles cycled on British roads rocketing by 45.7% to five billion.

Independent opinion polling and new research also published by the DfT shows that active travel schemes are supported, on average, by a ratio of two-to-one.

Reaction to the Highway Code proposals has been mixed though.

Paul Laughlin, a solicitor specialising in motoring law at Stephensons, greeted the plans: “Better protection for more vulnerable road users has been long overdue and this is certainly a positive step forward.

“In motoring law terms, there could be more of a marked difference between how the courts deal with different road users who commit the same offence. The test for careless driving, for example, is to consider whether the standard of driving has fallen below that of a competent and careful driver.”

He added: “We may now see a clearer distinction between how a motorcyclist’s driving is assessed compared to that of an HGV driver given their different positions in the new ‘hierarchy of road users’. There is already a distinction within the sentencing guidelines for this offence for those driving heavier, more dangerous vehicles. It may be that the new structured hierarchy sees the need for new, more structured sentencing guidelines for this offence.”

But Laughlin warned that education will be key in order for this to work successfully.

And IAM RoadSmart has warned of possible confusion to road users and said that everyone needs to be aware that the current rules will apply for the foreseeable future.

Rebecca Ashton, head of policy and research, said: “Without a well-funded education programme, we have concerns that the changes could instead increase conflict and potentially reduce the safety of the vulnerable road users the rule changes are intended to protect.”

In a recent survey, conducted by IAM RoadSmart, it was revealed that 71% of drivers and motorcyclists believe the new proposal to give pedestrians priority when turning into and out of junctions, for example, will increase conflict rather than reducing it, with more than half (57%) thinking this will be a significant issue.

And on the new Code’s most controversial suggestions – to establish a hierarchy of road users, where those in charge of the vehicles that can cause the greatest harm should bear the greatest responsibility to take care – the majority (56%) agree that this is the right way forward, but 26% are against and almost one in five (19%) are still to be convinced either way.

Ashton continued: “Regardless of what changes are introduced, it is clear there will be a need for a huge education campaign to ensure any amendments to the Highway Code are understood and fully adopted by the millions of existing UK drivers, motorcyclists and road users.

“The simple truth is that most of us don’t read the Highway Code unless we drive or ride professionally or are about to take a test. The Department for Transport needs to be realistic about the impact simply changing a seldom read document will have on the behaviour and safety of road users.”

And the Centre for London think-tank also expressed concerns.

Research director Claire Harding said: “Simply telling drivers to give way to pedestrians and cyclists won’t work on its own.

“The Government will need to continue to invest in new infrastructure and raise awareness of updates to the Highway Code to make this statement a reality.”

Meanwhile, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said it was extremely concerned at the planned changes.

Chief executive Richard Burnett said: “As far as we can see, there is little, if any, justification for these changes.

“The new priority rules for cycling are wrong. We have been campaigning for years to make cyclists aware of the dangers of undertaking turning HGVs but it now appears that they have right of way.

“This will encourage unsafe manoeuvres by cyclists who are then absolved of responsibility for their actions towards motorists.

“Making a driver (motorist or commercial vehicle driver) who has no control over how a cyclist is trained to use the roads responsible for the safety of others is inherently unjust. The rules around pedestrian priority make sense, the change for cyclists increases road danger and collision risk.”

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Natalie Middleton

Natalie has worked as a fleet journalist for nearly 20 years, previously as assistant editor on the former Company Car magazine before joining Fleet World in 2006. Prior to this, she worked on a range of B2B titles, including Insurance Age and Insurance Day.

One Comment

  • Dave Robbins02. Aug, 2021

    I’ve been riding a racing bike since 1967 and commuting to work by bike since 1974. I’ve had unblemished driving licence since 1973. I think
    more protection for vulnerable road users is over due. Remember that in a lot of countries in the EU if you’re driving and hit a
    cyclist you’re presumed guilty until you can prove your innocence. Having said that, I do agree with Richard Burnett regarding my own safety whilst
    on two wheels. Following the industrycampaign, I no longer go down the inside of hgvs idling at traffic lights. Although cycle lanes do seem to
    encourage this! In my view, for a whole host of reasons (environmental, health) etc we need to get more people out of cars and into active travel.
    Beefing up the protection for cyclists might just help — but it will need a campaign highlighting any changes to the Highway Code.