The Highway Code is changing – here’s everything you need to know

Scrub up on your Highway Code knowledge and get to grips with the new rules.

highway code changes

by Cat Dow |

From January 29, 2022, the Highway Code is changing. It aims to ‘create a hierarchy of road users’. But what does that mean? What does a road user hierarchy look like? How will it impact us? And why might it be necessary to introduce it at this time?

Hierarchy of road uses

The main message of the newly updated Highway Code says 'Those in charge of vehicles that can cause the greatest harm in the event of a collision bear the greatest responsibility to take care and reduce the danger they pose to others.’

The Code then goes on to say 'The objective of the hierarchy is not to give priority to pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders in every situation, but rather to ensure a more mutually respectful and considerate culture of safe and effective road use that benefits all users'.

Aiming to create a more transparent understanding for everyone using the UK roads, the new rules are pretty clear about not wanting to create an inflexible set of rules where one type of road user usurps another. However, the reality is that HGV drivers sit at the top of the road-liability food chain, pedestrians at the bottom; with children and the elderly considered the most at risk, and least liable.

Priorities for pedestrians

The new rules set out in the updated Code mean drivers don’t have priority at junctions anymore. They must give way to any pedestrians waiting or in the process of crossing the road.

Where once it was simply guidance to ask motorists and cyclists to stop if there were pedestrians crossing using a zebra crossing, it is now a legal requirement to stop if anyone is waiting.

Drivers to give priority to cyclists in certain situations e.g., on a roundabout

To offer cyclists more protection on the road, there’s a prescriptive requirement by drivers to treat cyclists as though they were motor cars, giving them more room.

Cyclists are now encouraged to ride where they feel safest and if that means the middle of the road, to be more visible, that is acceptable. Nevertheless, there is an explicit request for cyclists to give due consideration to motorists at junctions and on narrower stretches of road where overtaking opportunities are limited.

New rules for cyclists

cyclist on road

Not pass people walking, riding a horse or driving a horse-drawn vehicle closely or at high speed, particularly from behind.

Slow down when necessary and let people walking know they are there (for example, by ringing their bell).

Remember that people walking may be deaf, blind or partially sighted.

Not pass a horse on the horse’s left.

Riding in the centre of their lane on quiet roads, in slower-moving traffic and at the approach to junctions or road narrowings.

Keeping at least 0.5 metres (just over 1.5 feet) away from the kerb edge (and further where it is safer) when riding on busy roads with vehicles moving faster than them.

Can ride 2 abreast - and it can be safer to do so, particularly in larger groups or when accompanying children or less experienced riders.

Changes when it comes to overtaking

Leaving at least 1.5 metres (5 feet) when overtaking people cycling at speeds of up to 30mph, and giving them more space when overtaking at higher speed.

Passing people riding horses or driving horse-drawn vehicles at speeds under 10 mph and allowing at least 2 metres (6.5 feet) of space.

Allowing at least 2 metres (6.5 feet) of space and keeping to a low speed when passing people walking in the road (for example, where there’s no pavement).

What does a road user hierarchy look like?

Generally speaking, vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders will have right of way.

There’ll be an expectation that all motorists, regardless of the size of the vehicle, will give greater space, time and consideration to these vulnerable road users, paying particular attention where the elderly and children are involved. Junctions, road crossings and traffic lights are the hotspot areas that road users need to be most aware of.

When it comes to the hierarchy between vehicles, motorbike riders are considered more vulnerable than passenger cars and van drivers. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the responsibility to mitigate danger.

So how will the hierarchy of road users work in practical terms?

In order to best understand how the road user hierarchy works in practical terms, it’s worth considering a few hypothetical situations.

Scenario 1

A cyclist is approaching a red light, intending to turn left, they have undertaken the HGV on the inside as the lorry slows. The lorry is also looking to turn left. Despite the HGV driver having a blind spot, and audio technology to advise other road users that the vehicle intends to turn left, the driver will be expected to hang back to allow all cyclists to clear the road before moving off. In the event of an accident, the HGV is in a position to do the greatest harm, and therefore, with the rules applied broadly, liability will almost certainly lie with the HGV driver.

Scenario 2

A motor car has to make a right hand turn at the lights ahead. In the flow of oncoming traffic is a cyclist, with the car behind them unable to overtake. In this scenario, the car behind will have to continue to hang back. Meanwhile the vehicle waiting to turn right will need to wait until the cyclist has passed and there is a safe gap before attempting to make the turn. It is no longer acceptable to cut up cyclists and in the event of a car turning right, where a cyclist is hit, the car will be automatically liable since it would be deemed to be able to do the ‘greatest harm’.

Scenario 3

A motorcyclist is pulling out of a junction and an oncoming vehicle does not stop in time and collides with the motorcyclist. In this instance, the Code has always said a road user joining a more major road from a minor road must ensure there is an adequate gap—the traffic on the major road has right of way. However, if the vehicle on the major road maims the more vulnerable road user, depending on the circumstances of the situation, the driver of the vehicle could be held liable for the collision.

What does it mean for me?

There is no doubt that the 2022 updates to the Highway Code significantly change the way we ought to think about how we use our roads. Research suggests that not enough road users are even aware these changes are coming into effect.

The changes being applied in most cases are the ‘common sense’ approach, with the vast majority of drivers already taking their time and being patient to avoid causing accidents or injury to other road users. However, with cases of distracted driving and renegade cyclists causing fatalities and making the headlines, there’s clearly a need to clarify who is responsible for what.

Among the updates, the local authorities are going to be given more power to fine people making illegal driving manouevres, such as doing a U-turn in a prohibited area, ignoring a right light or entering a box junction without a clear exit. Being caught on fixed CCTV could land you with a £70 fine through the post.

While there will be a grace period of a couple of years, particularly for the traffic penalties, so everyone can become familiar with the changes, the rules will apply effective immediately from January 29, 2022 for any collisions or incidents that take place. This will leave the courts to help clarify any areas of confusion.

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