The Highway Code is changing… does it matter?

Padestrians crossing road with cyclists in background

The short answer is yes.

The Highway Code is a document containing rules and advice for all road users. This includes drivers of motorised vehicles, cyclists, horse riders and pedestrians.

The Highway Code is not “the law” - not like the Road Traffic Act 1988 is, but its rules and guidance do refer to the statute books which means it's often referred to in court cases.

In November 2018, the Department for Transport began work on improvements to The Highway Code with a view to making changes that would improve the safety of vulnerable road users like pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders.

In 2020 it gathered further momentum after a UK Government consultation gathered suggestions from over 20,000 people, organisations, and businesses. The majority of those who responded were in favour of the proposed change.

On 01 December 2021, these proposals were placed before parliament and are due to come into effect on 29th January 2022.  

To help you understand what changes and improvements are on the horizon for the 'new' Highway Code we've listed key points.

What are the changes to the Highway Code?

Rule H1: hierarchy of road users

One major change is a ‘ranking system’ of road users that lists them from least to most vulnerable in the event of a road traffic accident. 

The purpose of this rule is to take into account the lethal capabilities of the largest vehicles as compared to the vulnerability of an individual on foot. Therefore, the rankings – going from least vulnerable to most vulnerable – looks like this:

  • Large goods and passenger vehicles;
  • Vans and minibuses;
  • Cars and taxis;
  • Motorcycles;
  • Horse riders and horse-drawn vehicles;
  • Cyclists
  • Pedestrians.

It is suggested the least vulnerable road users ought to “bear the greatest responsibility to take care and reduce the danger they pose to others”.

This is not to say that a pedestrian has no duty to take care though. This rule goes on to state that all road users have a responsibility “to have a regard for their own and other road users’ safety”.

It follows that while an HGV driver may have a burden to take greater care than a pedestrian, a pedestrian does not have free licence to behave in a dangerous manner on the roads without having to bear the consequences should the worst happen.

As personal injury solicitors with knowledge and experience in the law surrounding road traffic accidents we would describe this as “causative potency”.

It is simply the idea that a large motorised vehicle such as an HGV has more capacity to cause harm than a pedestrian crossing a road on foot, and should therefore bear more responsibility to take care.

All things considered, this update to The Highway Code may bring more clarity about this rule to the public rather than being something completely new. This will hopefully allow people to use the roads together with a clearer knowledge of their responsibilities to one another.

Rule H2: I’m walkin’ here!

The changes to The Highway Code in relation to pedestrians indicate that Dustin Hoffman - who coined the famous phrase I’m walkin’ here! while narrowly avoiding being hit by a car while filming Midnight Cowboy - may have been right the whole time.

At present, motorists are only required to give way once a pedestrian has committed to crossing a road and their foot has been planted on the road.

Under Rule H2, pedestrians gain a far stronger right of way, with the new rules advising road users to give way to pedestrians crossing - or waiting to cross - side roads into which they are turning.

It further notes that traffic must give way to pedestrians on a zebra crossing, as well as pedestrians and cyclists on a parallel crossing.

The use of “must” as oppose to “may” or “should” makes this a legal requirement - a breach of which is a criminal offence.

Pedestrians may also use any part of the road or cycle lanes unless there are road signs prohibiting use, and cyclists should give way to pedestrians on shared use cycle lanes.

There has been some criticism of Rule H2 in case it leads to pedestrians becoming more careless or believing they will be blameless if they are involved in an accident.

Nonetheless, this change attracted the support of 74.8% of those responding to the consultation. It is worthwhile remembering that under Rule H1, all road users will still have a duty to take reasonable care.

Rule H3: I like to ride my bicycle

Similar to pedestrians, the new rules offer a more favourable outlook for those who have taken up cycling.

Rules H2 and H3 lay out some general ground rules allowing cyclists to have some priority. In particular, rule H3 gives cyclists right of way over motor vehicles if they are travelling straight ahead at a junction.

This may offer greater clarity where at present there are regular disputes between motor vehicle drivers and cyclists over who has right of way.

Although 88.6% were in favour of this change there are concerns that cyclists may be at risk if given priority when travelling straight over a driver who is turning left at a junction. Some have also suggested that this puts too much pressure on drivers to notice cyclists, who are not in turn required to wear hi-visibility clothing.

Rule 239: shall we go Dutch?

An interesting element of the changes is the “Dutch reach” technique for opening doors.

It is suggested that exiting a vehicle by opening the door with the hand on the opposite side (e.g. using your left hand to open the door to your right) is safer for passing cyclists or motorcyclists.

This is because reaching towards the door with the opposite hand physically forces your head and body to turn which offers you a clearer view of the road outside.

But do people know The Highway Code is changing?

It is clear these changes to The Highway Code are likely to have a profound effect upon the day-to-day lives of all UK road users.

Among the most difficult elements of changing a long standing public rule is making sure that the public know about it.

Once drivers pass their test and receive their licence, it is unlikely they will wish to revisit textbooks.

With this in mind, the UK Government has indicated it intends to launch an awareness-raising campaign to inform the public of the changes to The Highway Code. The Department for Transport has confirmed that the already established THINK! campaign will be used as a vehicle for these communications from the launch date onwards.

Until everyone is aware of these new rules, it is important for all road users to be mindful in order to keep everyone safe.