Published: 31st January 2022
Changes to the Highway Code aimed at giving the most vulnerable road users more protection came into effect on 29 January 2022. These include a new hierarchy of road users, priority to cyclists when cars are turning, safe passing distance guidelines, implementation of the ‘Dutch reach’ car door opening technique and road position advice for cyclists.
We analysed the new rules in our recent blog article New Highway Code Changes to be introduced in 2022, at which point, seemingly not many people knew or could fully comprehend the code. A couple of weeks later and there has been the regrettable media storm of misinformation.
In this blog we’re going to look at the potential impact of the new changes to the Highway Code, why road users are puzzled and whether our roads are likely to be made safer.
Unsurprisingly, many news articles about the Highway Code changes tend to be negative. Although not a reliable way of seeing how the public is thinking about changes, they perhaps do indicate that some people may still be a little ignorant about the new code. The Daily Mail and The Telegraph immediately published rousing opinion pieces that launched attacks on cycling. The backlash seems to have resulted in many road users either over-exaggerating the changes, complaining that they don’t know what the changes mean or commenting that they don’t go far enough.
The root of the issue is the lack of communication in the lead up to the end-of-January launch of the changes to the Highway Code. A recent AA survey reported that 33% of motorists polled didn’t know about the changes and that a further 4% had “no intention” of reading up on the details. Cycling UK’s head of campaigns Duncan Dollimore suggested that the lack of communication “is why we’re seeing so much erroneous reporting right now.” This has been echoed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) who agree that “all road users must be informed of Highway Code changes.”
Crucially, what are experts predicting will happen to the roads? Although it’s easy to be pessimistic, the changes mean that ambiguity towards riding two-a-breast and commanding the road is gone. The hierarchy of road users rule will hopefully move our roads in the right direction as priorities and responsibilities are now committed to paper and not just word of mouth. The courts will be helped too, as newly appointed interim commissioner to Active Travel England, Chris Boardman, pointed out on the road.cc podcast: “‘There’s something I don’t know’ is not an excuse – you’re expected to know this.”
On the other hand, Jonathan White of the National Accident Helpline warned that a “significant proportion” of drivers will not know the new rules which could lead to them “behaving in different ways” that could result in collisions this weekend. Like a few of the voices in cycling, he is of the mind that the lack of public awareness coupled with road users interpreting the rules differently will lead to no changes whatsoever: “When you’ve got two people behaving in different ways, applying the rules differently, that’s where you can get accidents,” White told the Express.
A fundamental limitation of the Highway Code is that most of the rules aren’t concrete laws. Sure, there are ‘must’ legal requirements but a lot of the time it is usually a “should” ruling that refers to guidelines instead. Plus, for many road users, their knowledge of the Highway Code only extends to what they needed to learn to pass their drivers test.
Which brings us on to a more immediate limitation to do with the aforementioned fact that initially, the government barely promoted the new rules. Hope is on the horizon in the form of a £500,000 communications drive in mid-February, but is this too late and has the damage already been done? Only time will tell, but if you regularly cycle on the roads, you will understand a rule on paper is one thing and a real-world scenario of bike versus car is another.
In conclusion, these changes to the Highway Code are an issue that won’t just disappear once January 29 comes around, but something that may rumble on all year. The rather grim forecast that the roads will become an even greater battleground between road users may be a short-term impact, but we are hopeful that in the long run, our roads become safer and more accessible to non-petrol-powered users.
As always, we wish everyone safe travels; however, if you or any of your family or friends are involved in an accident on the roads and require legal assistance from a Top Tier Legal 500 rated law firm, please do not hesitate to contact us.
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