Much of the British public is unaware of sweeping changes to the Highway Code that are due to come into force at the end of January, prompting claims that transport ministers are “missing in action”.
The revamped code establishes a hierarchy of road users, which means those who pose the greatest risk to others have a higher level of responsibility. This means someone cycling will have greater responsibility to look out for people walking, while someone driving will have greater responsibility to look out for people cycling, walking or riding a horse.
At least two in three drivers were unaware of the changes before Christmas, according to the AA, which polled 13,000 of its members on the subject.
Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s head of campaigns, welcomed the changes but said they “will be of limited benefit if the public aren’t aware of them”.
Many of the rules in the code are legal requirements, and to disobey these rules is to commit a criminal offence.
The changes introduce new advisory measures that are not legal requirements but could be drawn upon in court proceedings.
These include advice that drivers:
- Should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross a road into which or from which their vehicle is turning.
- Should not cut across cyclists or horse riders going ahead when turning into or out of a junction or changing direction or lane, to prevent “left hook” collisions.
- Should open car doors using the “Dutch reach” method, with the hand on the opposite side to the door they are opening. This makes drivers turn their heads to look over their shoulders and reduces the likelihood of “dooring” a passing cyclist.
- Should leave at least 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists at speeds of up to 30mph, and give them more space when overtaking at higher speeds.
The code also advises cyclists to give way to pedestrians on shared-use cycle tracks and to horse riders on bridleways, and to “slow down when necessary and let them know you are there, for example by ringing your bell (it is recommended that a bell is fitted to your bike) or by calling out politely.”
Dollimore said: “Many people won’t have read the Highway Code for years, so it’s essential that the key changes are clearly explained, with simple, accurate and memorable messages.
“These changes have legal implications. Just as we saw with the introduction of other road safety measures like mandatory seat belts and stricter drink-driving laws, the public needs to be accurately informed about the new rules. The hierarchy of responsibility and changes to junction priority need to be explained and communicated properly, regardless of whether or not everyone agrees with them.”
Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, said: “With cyclists feeling increasingly unsafe, these are welcome changes, but they will be totally meaningless if the public don’t know anything about them. A comprehensive national safety campaign is needed to keep cyclists safe on our roads, but ministers are missing in action.”
Cycling UK called on the government to implement “a long-term and well-funded communications campaign” to raise awareness of the new code.
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “The proposed upcoming changes to the Highway Code will improve safety for cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders and were announced to national press.
“The department has established a working group of key organisations to ensure that messages about the changes are as widespread as possible, and our well-established Think! campaign will continue to ensure all road users are aware both when these changes come into effect and beyond.”
If approved by parliament, the changes to the Highway Code will come into force on 29 January 2022.