Does the Highway Code Really Protect Cyclists?

In January this year, the Highway Code was updated with a number of rule changes that are designed to protect the most vulnerable users on Britain’s roads. The long-awaited updates have been widely praised as a step in the right direction for road safety.

But do the new rules go far enough to protect cyclists?

In this article, we take a look at some of the key changes and ask whether they will, in fact, make journeys safer and easier for cyclists or whether they will simply create more confusion on the roads.

Highway Code Changes 2022

The recent changes include 50 or so new Highway Code rules with varying impacts on cyclists. Some of the key changes include:

  • The introduction of a ‘hierarchy of road users‘, recognising that road users who can cause greater harm in the event of a collision ought to have a higher level of consideration for more vulnerable road users. This rule places pedestrians at the top, as the most vulnerable, followed by cyclists and motorists.
  • New priority for cyclists when cars are turning.
  • Simplifying the rules relating to junctions to make them safer.
  • The recommendation that cyclists should use the centre of the lane on narrow roads where a car overtaking would be dangerous.
  • Advice to ride two abreast where it would be safer to do so, especially when riding with children.
  • New safe passing distance guidelines of 1.5m, to reduce dangerous overtaking and close passes.
  • Safer techniques for opening doors to prevent ‘car dooring’ including the Dutch Reach technique of opening your car door to better see vulnerable road users approaching.

Cyclists Need More Protection

Do the changes go far enough?

In many ways, the new rules simply give official support to what many regard as common sense and courtesy. Few would disagree with the principle that road users who are at most at risk from the actions of others deserve the greatest protection. Cycling UK, a cycling charity that has long campaigned for Highway Code reform, has welcomed the updates and notes that all of the 10 key changes it recommended to the Department of Transport have been included. The rules have been praised by cycling and road safety charities across the board.

However, there are major concerns over how the changes have been communicated, with some drivers having no idea that the code has changed at all.

Research commissioned by the UK’s largest independent road safety charity, IAM RoadSmart, has revealed that one in five (20 percent) motorists surveyed were unaware of the latest changes to the code.

An AA survey of more than 13,700 drivers carried out in January showed 33% were unaware of the changes, including 4% who had “no intention” of looking at the details.

These are alarming numbers. We could see a rise in angry clashes and, worse, unnecessary collisions until all road users are aware of the rules, which is the opposite result of what the updates set out to achieve.

Are the new Highway Code rules law?

While some instructions in the Highway Code are backed up by laws and have some legal muscle behind them, others do not. Any rule using wording like ‘must or must not‘ is supported by the law, which means you could be fined or prosecuted if you ignore it. Non-compliance with the lesser wording of ‘should or should not‘ will not, in itself, result in a fine, although the behaviour can be used in evidence in any court proceedings to establish that an offence has been committed under the Traffic Acts.

This situation is confusing for road users and also for police, who must decide whether an offence has taken place and what the appropriate action should be.

It is notable that almost all of the new rules relating to cyclists are written in the advisory wording (should). This potentially leaves a grey area as to whether car owners are likely to be prosecuted under the updated rules, or whether they’ll be dismissed as simply ‘advisory’ with a minimal impact on driving behaviour.

Where do we go from here?

Various organisations including Cycling UK, London Cycling Campaign, and the Institute of Civil Engineers believe that the public need to be educated on the changes in radically more effective ways. It is not reasonable to expect road users to be aware of the code, suggests ICE, when the reality is most drivers only learn the Code to pass their test, and cyclists and pedestrians may never read the Code at all. ICE makes a number of suggestions in this regard, including putting the new rules on the school national curriculum and in Bikeability training.

The fact is, tensions between cyclists and motorists are extremely high. A study by the road safety charity Brake found that four in 10 drivers believe there has been an increase in aggressive driving around cyclists in the past five years. This has led some cyclist groups to suggest that, while the code updates are a good start, what is actually needed is an overhaul of the driver’s mindset so they stop seeing cyclists as a nuisance and start seeing them as vulnerable users who they have responsibility for on the road. Cyclists need drivers to think, “what would I do in this situation if I were a cyclist?” before taking any action on the road.

The London Cycling Campaign (https://lcc.org.uk/) would like to see a high-profile public awareness initiative that clearly lays out the new rules and the penalties for ignoring them, like the government’s seat belt or drink driving campaigns. These campaigns were a great success in encouraging a much-needed public attitude shift. It’s only through creating widespread support for the rules, backed up by a culture of enforcement, that safety will become an everyday reality for the cyclists on Britain’s roads.