By Peter Lorence, a serious injury lawyer at Irwin Mitchell

Effective from 29 January 2022, The Highway Code has undergone changes to improve road safety, with particular attention placed on vulnerable road users.

Ahead of their implementation, we at Irwin Mitchell are highlighting some of these changes, their significance on road safety and why these changes are required. We represent too many individuals and families whose lives have been shattered by death and serious injury on our nation’s roads, due to entirely avoidable collisions.

What is The Highway Code?

The Highway Code sets out information, advice, guides and mandatory rules for road users in the United Kingdom. Its objective is to promote road safety. The Highway Code applies to all road users including pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists, as well as motorcyclists and drivers.

Many of the rules in the code are legal requirements, and if you disobey these rules you are committing a criminal offence. You may be fined, given penalty points on your licence or be disqualified from driving. In the most serious cases you may be sent to prison.

Although failure to comply with the other rules of the code will not, in itself, cause a person to be prosecuted, The Highway Code may be used in evidence in any court proceedings under the Traffic Acts to establish liability. This includes rules which use advisory wording. 

What’s changed?

The changes to The Highway Code are extensive. Leading up to 29 January, 2022, we will provide more detailed guidance from our specialist serious injury lawyers on the changes being made. In the meantime, we have highlighted a number of the main updates which should be celebrated and publicised in equal measure.

Hierarchy of road users

Previously The Highway Code had guided for all road users to be considerate towards each other, applying this principle to pedestrians and drivers equally. This therefore placed children walking to school on an equal footing with lorry drivers when considering their responsibility for their own safety as well as the safety of others. 

The new hierarchy of road users places those who can do the greatest harm with the greatest responsibility to reduce danger to others. This is designed to protect the most vulnerable people on our roads.

The new rules place emphasis on this hierarchy applying most strongly to drivers of heavy goods vehicles and passenger vehicles, vans, minibuses, cars and motorcycles.  Likewise, cyclists, horse drivers and drivers of horse drawn vehicle have a greater responsibility to reduce dangers posed to pedestrians.

Pedestrian priorities at junctions

One change that should be highlighted in particular is pedestrian priorities at junctions. Currently, road users should only give way to pedestrians who have started to cross the road into which they are turning. 

The new Rule H2 of the revised code provides for priority to be given to pedestrians who are waiting to cross the road as well. Therefore, if you are looking to turn into a road and a pedestrian is waiting to cross, you are expected to give way. 

We’re concerned that this significant change poses risks to pedestrians who may assert their rights under the new rules, yet drivers may not be aware of this change. It is therefore important for all road users to be aware of the new rules, to ensure everyone’s safety and understanding.

Rules for drivers and motorcyclists at junctions

We see too many deaths and life changing injuries as a result of vehicles turning across the paths of cyclists at junctions; drivers may fail to check for the presence of cyclists before committing to their manoeuvre, even when cyclists have been alongside them when doing so. 

The new Rule H3 is designed to protect cyclists from this happening. It sets out that when turning into or out of a junction, drivers should not cut across the path of any other road user. The guidance now stipulates not to cut across cyclists, horse riders or horse drawn vehicles. This includes where there is cycle lane at the nearside. Road users are expected to stop and wait for a safe gap before beginning their manoeuvre. Drivers are tasked with not turning at junctions if it would cause someone going straight ahead to stop or swerve.

Safe Passing Distances

Close passing represents a serious danger to our most vulnerable road users. We’ve seen cases of people on bicycles being clipped by fast moving traffic, resulting in catastrophic injuries. We’ve also seen those cycling in our city centres be dragged under the wheels of vehicles that have attempted to pass them, but done so too closely.  

In addition, we have seen cases of horse riders and horses being hit by fast moving traffic, resulting in deaths and serious injury. Due to horses being flight animals that can move incredibly quickly if startled, close passing at speed can also pose dangers to riders and horses, even without an actual collision.

Rule 163 now prescribes safe passing distances for when overtaking cyclists, motorcyclists, horse riders and horse drawn vehicles. This includes guiding on at least a 1.5 metre space when overtaking a cyclist at speeds of up to 30mph. 

More space is expected when overtaking at speeds in excess of 30mph.  If when passing a pedestrian who is walking in the road, drivers are expected to allow at least two metres of space and to maintain a low speed.  Extra care should be taken in poor weather. The guidance also sets out that drivers should not overtake if it is unsafe or not possible to meet the clearances set out.

In addition to setting out safe passing distances, the new Rule 72 establishes the right for cyclists to ride in the centre of their lane, to ensure that they remain visible. Cyclists are only expected to move to the left to allow faster vehicles to overtake when it is safe to do so. At junctions or on narrow roads, cyclists can maintain their central position where it would be unsafe for a driver to overtake.

Rule 213 has also been changed to confirm that on narrow sections of roads, horse riders may ride in the centre of the lane and drivers should allow them to do so for their own safety, to ensure they can see and be seen.

Safely passing parked vehicles and the 'Dutch Reach'

When cycling by parked vehicles, the risk of doors being opened into a cyclist’s path is a real danger and a common cause of collision. Previously The Highway Code had warned only for cyclists to watch out for doors being opened. Rule 67 has now been revised to provide guidance on the safe distance to pass parked vehicles; it now suggests leaving a door’s width or one metre when doing so.

For those opening the doors of parked vehicles, Rule 239 has also been updated to include what is often known as the “Dutch Reach”. When you are able to do so, you should open your vehicle door using your hand on the opposite side to the door you are opening. For example, if you are in the right hand seat, you would use your left hand to open the door. In doing so, this forces you to turn your body and your head, better enabling you to check over your shoulder and your blind spot. This better enables those in vehicles to check whether it is safe to open their door, reducing the chance of opening their door into someone’s path.

Conclusion

These changes are largely very welcome and we were proud to take part in the Government’s consultation. In preparing our consultation response, however, we reflected on our clients’ stories and how the life-changing incidents they suffered could have been easily avoided had these changes been made sooner. 

Nevertheless, we celebrate these changes which represent an important step towards eliminating deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in helping people affected by road collisions and their families at our dedicated road traffic accidents section.