Changes to the Highway Code came into effect on the 29th January this year aiming to protect the most vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists, and horse riders, by implementing rules that give them greater rights of way. We wanted to help untangle what the changes mean for road users and cover the most significant updates. 

Why has the Highway Code changed? 

The new rules aim to establish a clear set of priorities by creating a hierarchy of road users and placing greater responsibility on those who can cause the greatest harm, thus reducing the damage they could potentially cause. 

The objective is to reduce the risk of accidents and potential injuries to all road users, with a particular focus on added protections for pedestrians and cyclists. Figures released by the Department for Transport (DfT) demonstrate the need for this, revealing that 4,290 pedestrians and 4,700 cyclists were killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads from 2020 to 2021. 

New rights of way for pedestrians and cyclists 

Many of the guidelines centre around junctions, where accidents often occur. We have explored this previously, with research  showing 75 per cent of cyclists killed or seriously injured were involved in collisions at or near a road junction.  

In the updated code, drivers, motorcyclists, horse riders, and cyclists must now give way to pedestrians on a zebra crossing, a parallel crossing, or are waiting to cross a road into which or from they are turning. 

The need for greater protection for cyclists has been reflected in statistics for years, with cyclists 50 per cent more likely to become involved in an accident than a car or bus driver. 

The risk of cyclists being injured by car doors, for example, is being tackled two-fold; by asking cyclists to keep a distance of at least one metre when passing parked cars, and by asking drivers to perform a ‘Dutch Reach’ when opening car doors. This is the action of opening the car door with their opposite hand, allowing the driver to turn around properly to look for cyclists. 

Our previous insights revealed that a leading cause of cyclist accidents is vehicles crossing a cyclist’s path. Rules have now been introduced to combat this by preventing drivers from cutting across cyclists and horse riders when turning into or out of a junction. 

Spreading the word 

A survey ran by the AA found that a third of drivers were not aware that new rules were coming into force. The DfT previously claimed that an awareness campaign would be launched, strengthened by their well-established Think! campaign. But it is not yet clear how widespread or effective this has been.  

Without a comprehensive mass communications campaign, the changes could cause uncertainty and confusion on the roads and even result in accidents. For example, if pedestrians follow the new rules by crossing at a junction, expecting any cars to wait, but the driver is not aware and is expecting the pedestrian to wait, there may be a situation where both parties try to move simultaneously, causing a collision and resulting in serious injury.  

This risk is likely to diminish however, as awareness of the rules improves. 

What does this mean for liability?  

Despite the new hierarchy of responsibility, this will not cause a presumption of liability against a road user lower down the scale. There are also no changes in the legislation behind the Highway Code.  

This means that the update will not compromise the basic principle that a breach of the code does not in itself make the person in breach liable, nor does an absence of a breach necessarily absolve a person from liability.  

It is undeniably crucial that the code is continually revised to ensure it is providing the best protection for all road users and, as with any change, it will take time to be fully functional. However, spreading the message far and wide, will be the key to ensuring that the rules improve the safety on our roads.