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By Spencers Solicitors

  Steven Barke    
  February 18, 2022

The New Highway Code: What does it mean for cyclists?

Saturday, the 29th of January 2022, heralded the arrival of the revised Highway Code. It’s been a long time since the Highway Code was last added to (over ten years, in fact), so changes were perhaps long overdue.

Highway Code

Although most of the revisions were widely expected, the national tabloid press greeted the arrival of the new edition of the ‘Code’, with acute scepticism bordering on outrage, in some instances.

However, for cyclists and other vulnerable road users, the changes to the Highway Code bring some welcome relief. According to the RAC Foundation, traffic volumes on our roads are back up to pre-pandemic levels and may get even heavier than they were before (if research highlighted by The Times newspaper proves true). Many cyclists have felt something needed to give, and the changes to the Highway Code may answer some, if not all, of their prayers.

What are the main changes to the latest version of the Highway Code?

  1. New rule HI introduces the concept of a hierarchy of road users to ensure that those motorists who carry the greatest threat of harm to other road users bear the largest share of responsibility for reducing the danger they present to other road users.
    If you think of the hierarchy in terms of a league table, it will look like this:
    1. Pedestrians
    2. Cyclists
    3. Horse Riders
    4. Motorcyclists
    5. Cars/Taxis
    6. Buses and Coaches
    7. HGVs
    The hierarchy means those further down the table owe greater responsibility to look out for the welfare of those above them.
    At the same time, rule H1 reminds all road users they have a responsibility regarding their own and other road users safety.
  2. Rule H2 is concerned with ensuring that motorists, cyclists, motorcyclists, horse riders, and horse drawn vehicles prioritise pedestrians’ safety at road junctions and crossings. For instance, all other road users:
    • Should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross a road into which they, the other road user, intends to turn into or out of.
    • Must give way to pedestrians already crossing at a zebra crossing and to pedestrians and cyclists already on parallel crossings
    • Should give way to pedestrians waiting to cross at a zebra crossing and to pedestrians and cyclists waiting to cross at parallel crossings
    Pedestrians have priority over cyclists on ‘shared use’ cycle tracks. Horse riders similarly have priority over cyclists on bridleways.
    Only pedestrians can use pavements (meaning cyclists and e-scooter riders cannot).
  3. Rule H3 brings in some of the most controversial new rules of all the amendments to the Code. It is aimed at drivers and motorcyclists, advising them that:
    1. Cyclists, horse riders and horse drawn vehicles have priority at road junctions. This means that drivers and motorcyclists should not cut across the path of cyclists (etc.) going straight ahead when they (drivers and motorcyclists) turn at a road junction or change lanes.
    2. They must not turn at a junction if doing so would cause a cyclist (etc.) to stop or swerve.
    3. They must stop and wait for a safe gap in a flow of cyclists.

Other amendments affecting cyclists

  1. Cyclists can ride two abreast where they feel it would be safer, particularly in larger groups or when cycling with children. (Rule 66)
  2. Cyclists should ride in the centre of their lane on quiet roads, in slower moving traffic and on the approach to junctions or where the road narrows.
  3. Cyclists should keep at least 0.5 metres away from the kerb when allowing motorists to overtake them on busy roads.
  4. Motorists should remember that cyclists do not have to use cycle lanes or cycle tracks, and they have the same right as all other road users to ride wherever on the road they choose to.
  5. Cyclists can move past slow-moving or stationary traffic on either the left- or right-hand side of the queue but should proceed cautiously in case drivers in the line of traffic don’t see them.

Overtaking other road users

Motorists should give motorcyclists, cyclists, horse riders and horse drawn vehicles at least as much room as when overtaking other motorists. The amendment to the Code now provides suggested passing distances of at least:

  • 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists at speeds up to 30mph (more when travelling faster)
  • 2 metres, when overtaking horse riders and at speeds under 10mph
  • 2 metres at low speed when passing a pedestrian walking in the road

Extra care should be taken in bad weather and motorists should wait behind the vulnerable road user and not attempt to overtake if it isn’t safe to pass at the suggested clearance distances.

Has the Dutch Reach method of opening a vehicle door been incorporated into the new Highway Code?

The Dutch Reach, so-called because it first started to be used in the super cyclist-friendly Netherlands, is a means of opening the door of a stationary vehicle by using the hand on the opposite side to the door you are opening.

For instance, if you are using a right-hand drive car and are sitting in the driver’s seat, parked at the left-hand nearside kerb, then using the Dutch reach method, you would open your driver’s door by reaching over with your left hand to open it.

The idea behind this is that although admittedly an awkward method of opening the door, it only allows you to open the door a small amount. Using this method, if you have failed to look out for a passing cyclist or motorcyclist overtaking your stationary vehicle, at least you are unlikely to open the door far enough for it to knock the cyclist or motorcyclist off their bikes.

When used by a nearside seated passenger, the same method prevents passing pedestrians from getting injured by an errant door being flung into their path.

Sadly, whilst advising motorists to adopt the Dutch Reach method of opening a door is to be commended, the new rule is only advisory, not mandatory. It isn’t a MUST rule, i.e. there are no sanctions if you fail to follow the suggestion.

In addition, the rule starts by saying:

“ Where you are able to do so… you should (open the door using the Dutch Reach method.” It almost feels like the rule is included as a last resort.

By the way, if you knock someone off their bike by ‘dooring’ them it is still a road traffic offence, but then it already has been since 1986. At the same time very, few people have been prosecuted under the existing law.

How will the new rules of the Highway Code benefit cyclists?

The amendments and rules introduced into the new Highway Code have been made to benefit all vulnerable road users, including cyclists. When first presenting the proposals to refresh the Highway Code in the summer of 2021, Transport Minister Grant Shapps was quoted as saying:

“Millions of us have found over the past year how cycling and walking are great ways to stay fit, ease congestion on the roads and do your bit for the environment.

“As we build back greener from the pandemic, we’re determined to keep that trend going by making active travel easier and safer for everyone.”

Giving cyclists rights of way at junctions and when travelling together on roundabouts, permitting them to ride two abreast and in the centre of the road lane in certain circumstances, are changes that put the safety of cyclists’ safety first. The same can be said of the recommendation that when overtaking cyclists at speeds of up to 30mph, motorists should pass at a distance of at least 1.5 metres.

Inevitably the additions and amendments to the Highway Code rules are also of the type that will anger motorists. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the new Highway Code being published, the tabloid and regional press were quick to pass judgment, with articles sporting headlines such as:

“Highway Code changes are ‘bonkers’ as MP criticises cyclists riding in the middle of the road” – Daily Express

“Jeremy Clarkson jokes Highway Code changes were dreamed up at a Downing Street party” – Wales Online

It would be easy for cyclists to counter anti-cyclist comments with their own barrage of abuse against motorists. All that is likely to achieve is to foster more resentment towards cyclists than already exists.

The changes to the Highway Code are good news for cyclists. What is needed now is to make the changes work in practice, which involves if not exactly managing to get motorists onside as such, at least getting them to acknowledge the changes and make sure they adhere to them in practice.

From a cyclists point of view, it’s important to remember the overriding commitment of the new Highway Code rule H1 to ensuring:

“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.”

A more significant challenge may be getting road users of all types aware of the more prominent of the new Highway Code changes, at the very least. There is a genuine fear that relatively few people will ever become aware of the changes, let alone put them into practice.

Duncan Dollymore, head of UK campaigns at Cycling UK, said:

“Many people won’t have read the Highway Code for years, so it’s essential that the key changes are clearly explained.”

Nicholas Lyes of the RAC has outlined his concerns too:

“These changes to the Highway Code are substantial, so it’s vitally important they are communicated clearly. In theory, they should make our roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians, but unless everyone is aware of them, there’s a risk of angry clashes and, worse still, unnecessary collisions.

“Nobody wants to be on the right side of the Highway Code changes but in the back of an ambulance because of confusion on the part of a driver or any other road user.”

The Department for Transport recently announced the launch of a £500,000 publicity campaign to raise awareness of the revisions to the Highway Code and insists it will cover all forms of media, both on and offline.

One thing is for sure. If the motoring public, in general, doesn’t get to know about the Highway Code’s new rules, it will be a recipe for disaster. You can guarantee that a high percentage of cyclists already know the rules. If other motorists don’t know them and drive around in ignorance, there will be a significant increase in the number of injured cyclists putting in calls to personal injury solicitors to make cycling accidents claims.

Steve Barke

About the author

Steve is a solicitor who qualified in 1998 and has over 30 years experience in representing clients throughout the UK who have suffered catastrophic, complex serious injuries including amputations; whole body burns, and long term disabling psychological conditions as a result of serious workplace and road traffic accidents, in particular, catastrophic injuries in the steelworks and factories of South Wales; Kent and the Midlands.

In addition he has been an advocate at inquests representing families of loved ones who have died as a result of accidents. Steve goes that extra mile for clients exhibiting excellent client care.

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