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The Highway Code is changing – so what, and what next?

Phil Jones, PJA for LTT

20 August 2021/Categories: PTRC News

The announcement of the Government’s intention to press ahead with all the draft changes to the Highway Code contained in its July 2020 consultation draft have been warmly welcomed by active travel and road safety campaigners.  DfT committed in November 2018 to revising the Highway Code, including introducing a ‘hierarchy of users’ (with active travellers at the top) and clearer priority for cyclists and pedestrians at junctions.

Along with Roger Geffen of Cycling UK and Joe Irvin of Living Streets I was invited in early 2019 to help develop detailed proposals for the changes to the Code on behalf of the Walking and Cycling Alliance of campaign groups; and to their credit the Department for Transport welcomed this initiative and worked closely with the WACA team from then on.

From the outset it seemed to me that the Hierarchy of Road Users had to be clearly expressed in terms of expected behaviours, particularly of those users who cause the most danger to others.  We therefore proposed three new rules, prefixed H for Hierarchy, which will come before all others in the Code to emphasise their primacy.

Rule H1 has been called the ‘hierarchy of responsibility’ and is expected to say that “…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” – a statement with which few would disagree.

Rules H2 and H3 then state how road users should behave around pedestrians and cyclists respectively.  People walking are to be given priority when waiting to cross a side road, strengthening the existing Rule 170 which only gave priority to the pedestrian once she or he had put themselves at risk by stepping into the carriageway.  Rule H3 states that drivers should give way to people cycling going ahead at junctions and on links, just as they would another motor vehicle – again hardly a radical statement when viewed objectively. 

As well as these new rules there are many other changes and additions to the Code including - drivers should stop to allow pedestrians to cross waiting at a zebra; cyclists should give priority to pedestrians on shared paths; and drivers should leave at least 2.0m when passing cyclists on high speed roads.  Guidance is given on how to use new types of cycle infrastructure, such as two-stage turns and parallel crossings; and the existence of 20mph speed limits in built up areas is acknowledged.

The new Code should be laid before Parliament towards the end of 2021 and come into force in early 2022. I welcome the fact that DfT is also planning a major communications campaign to inform road users – particularly drivers – of the new and changed rules.  It is to be hoped this is based on the philosophy of road danger reduction which underpins the Hierarchy, targeting the threat posed by motor vehicles, rather than rehashing the theme of ‘road safety’ which too often places responsibility on pedestrians and cyclists to change their behaviour to make themselves safe.

The new Highway Code won’t be a magic bullet, and further changes in the regulatory framework will be needed. But it does represent a significant and positive change in the way in which our roads should be used.  From a designer’s perspective, making the rules clearer should also encourage less progressive local authorities to provide facilities such as continuous footways and cycle tracks with priority over side roads. 

Over time that can only make it safer and more attractive to walk and cycle – the most benign, healthy and sustainable modes available to us.


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