Roz Boynton: The new Highway Code – what’s all the fuss about?
The recent changes to the Highway Code have been widely reported. However, the initial worries of chaos on UK roads, gridlock as city traffic is paralysed by cyclists hogging the roads, or pedestrians making a dive in front of traffic in crash for cash bids have all gone unfounded. Quite frankly, not much has changed on roads as far as I can tell. Safe and courteous road users are having to change very little.
What the new Highway Code does introduce is a hierarchy of road users, reminding all that vulnerable road users such as pedestrians (particularly elderly, disabled and children), cyclists, horse riders and motorcyclists are at greatest risk. This should not be new to anyone. You might have views on cyclists, motorcyclists or maybe you have an issue with horses on the road, but surely every motorist must accept that in a collision with a motor car, van, or lorry, the vulnerable road user will always come off worse.
It’s pleasing to see that as well as cyclists and pedestrians, horse-riders and motorcyclists are included in the hierarchy. For too long, motorcyclists have been over-represented in terms of serious and fatal injuries on our roads. More must be done to improve the safety of all groups of vulnerable road users and it’s just common sense that when you drive a vehicle capable of killing a vulnerable road user, you should bear greater responsibility. The new rules reflect this and are a reminder to us all that we should look out for each other when sharing the road.
The new Highway Code brings in rules giving priority to crossing pedestrians when turning into junctions. Again, whilst possibly causing a little confusion as we all get used to it, as a courteous driver I am happy to sit warm and toasty in my car for an extra five seconds to allow a pedestrian to cross. I’d rather see a pedestrian move safely out of my way than worry that they might step out in front of my car. Again – what’s the problem?
There’s new specification about a safe overtaking distance. Giving cyclists and horse riders plenty of room isn’t new guidance, but a simple clarification of what plenty of room means. Motorists should give cyclists at least 1.5m and more on faster roads. Horses riders should be given two metres. Motorists should wait until it is safe to overtake. Comments from angry drivers stating that the new rules mean that motorists will be forced onto the other side of the road to overtake cyclists and horses are a bit of a surprise to me – why weren’t you doing that already?
Finally, there are new rules advising cyclists to ride two abreast when in larger groups and to take the centre of the lane to increase visibility to avoid being overtaken at junctions, when safe to do so. Cyclists were already entitled and advised to this in previous iterations of the Highway Code and indeed it has been taught to our young cyclists doing Bikeability training for over 10 years now. The primary position is the centre of the carriageway, and you can move to the left to allow traffic to pass when it’s safe to do so. No cyclist wants to have a line of angry traffic behind them, but equally, they also want to get home safely to their family each night. So, there’s no real change other than its now written in black and white why cyclists might appear to be hogging the lane – self-preservation!
So, what is it that has people so riled?
In my view, I think it’s just that human trait of wanting to belong to a group. People identify themselves as motorists, motorcyclists, cyclists or pedestrians and don’t like being placed in a hierarchy of priority when using the road, especially with motorists being placed last in the queue. This is evident from the cries of “cyclists don’t pay road tax” or “cyclists should have insurance”. It’s that general sense of entitlement to use the road which emanates from motorists.
Personally, I am a driver, a cyclist, sometimes a pedestrian and, for a brief period, a motorcyclist. I’ve not ridden a horse before, but who knows what the future may bring. I am one person – identifying with many different roles. Sometimes I’m a cyclist, a driver and a pedestrian all in the same day. The new Highway Code should be seen not as changing rules for some groups, but rather improving the safety for all of us as we share the roads together.
Roz Boynton is an associate solicitor at Road Traffic Accident Law (Scotland) LLP