New UK Highway Code to introduce road hierarchy amid changing behaviour

A proposed new Highway Code is set to introduce a hierarchy of road users in the UK, placing the highest responsibility on those who can do the greatest harm amidst changing transport behaviour following COVID-19 restrictions.

In July 2020 the Department of Transport launched a consultation in relation to its proposed changes to the Highway Code, which in the main entail the following:

  • The introduction of a hierarchy of road users (ranging from motorists to the most vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians) placing the greatest responsibility on those who can do the greatest harm. 

  • Clarity on pedestrian priority on pavements and giving way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross roads.

  • Guidance on safe passing distances and speeds when overtaking cyclists and horse riders and ensuring they have priority at junctions when travelling straight ahead. 

The proposed changes should give added impetus to fleet risk management policies and driver training to raise further awareness of vulnerable road users such as cyclists or pedestrians and modify driving patterns accordingly.

In responding to the consultation, the insurance industry lobby groups have generally welcomed the approach to improve road safety but have advocated a balanced approach where vulnerable road users should also be informed of their responsibilities as road users rather than a presumed liability for drivers approach.

Industry lobby groups have also recommended that proposed changes to the Highway Code are not implemented in isolation but as part of a widespread education campaign for all road users, which should include Highway Code changes and reflect automated vehicle technology.

The new rules are being introduced at a time when transport behaviour is shifting considerably. Following lockdown regulations introduced early 2020, global cities saw a sharp spike in the number of cyclists taking to the streets, significantly changing the composition of road users.

London, for example, has recorded an increase in the number of cyclists by nearly 120 per cent during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Some insurers like RSA subsidiary MORE TH>N believe the changes should go further in order to improve road safety for drivers and cyclists. The insurer has detected a 50% increase in the proportion of car insurance claims involving injured cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists since the lockdown in March 2020. 

  1. MORE TH>N believes that the wording concerning cyclist’s priorities and right of way at junctions should be made clearer to avoid confusion. Instead of stating that drivers ‘should not cut across cyclists’ it should say ‘must not cut across cyclists’, as the current wording is too lenient and no circumstances would warrant cutting across a cyclist when turning into or out of a junction.

  2. MORE TH>N has also highlighted an issue around the proposed change to Rule 79, which allows cyclists to ride in the left-hand lane of a roundabout even if they are turning right, which would lead to them going against the flow of traffic, causing confusion and accidents. It would be safer if cyclists were instead encouraged to navigate roundabouts in the same way as cars while looking at how to create safer paths for cyclists through roundabout junctions.