Common myths about what UK Highway Code changes will mean

There is, we are told in the Daily Mail, “fury” over changes to the Highway Code. There is “confusion” among road users. Cyclists and pedestrians will, the more breathless news coverage intimates, have carte blanche to weave across the highways, with drivers held culpable for every mishap.

This is, of course, nonsense. After a weekend of yet more misleading coverage, and with the new rules due to come into effect later this week, here’s a brief, potted guide to what will change – and what will not.

One of the sillier weekend headlines, from the Sunday Times, suggested just this. And as I’m sure the headline writer knew well, the Highway Code simply says cyclists should use the centre of the lane, and even then only at certain times, for example approaching junctions or on narrow sections of roads, where a car overtaking would cause danger. This is a change to the code, but it’s not new, or even new guidance. Cyclists have been formally advised for years to take what is known as the “primary position” at such moments.

The new text just makes it clearer. The old version says people should “never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file on narrow or busy roads”, which was slightly vague and a bit sweeping. The code will now say: “You can ride two abreast and it can be safer to do so, particularly in larger groups or when accompanying children or less experienced riders.” Hopefully over time more drivers will understand why it can be safer. Note to the Sunday Times: the rules do not “encourage” riding two abreast.

Another slightly excitable paragraph from the Sunday Times story said that the new Highway Code would mean cyclists are no longer obliged to use bike lanes when one is provided. But this was the case anyway. The language has simply been made clearer, saying cyclists “may exercise their judgment and are not obliged to use them”.

One of the most debated changes is that drivers about to turn into a junction should now give way to pedestrians “crossing or waiting to cross” that road. That’s what good drivers do anyway, but it is a change to the previous version, which said pedestrians had priority only “if they have started to cross”. As anyone will know if, say, they have walked through a city with a small child, or a frail older person, it can be daunting to have to step out into the road just to claim a place to cross.

One fairly long new section describes actions you would hope were everyday behaviour for any driver, for example to not turn at a junction “if to do so would cause [a] cyclist, horse rider or horse-drawn vehicle going straight ahead to stop or swerve”. Similarly, it sets out minimum space requirements for overtaking cyclists, and also for pedestrians and horse riders. Another new element says that in slow-moving traffic, drivers should allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross in front of them.

For example, a new instruction notes that cyclists should give way to pedestrians on shared pathways, and to horse riders on bridleways – again, something that should be happening anyway. More widely, the updated Highway Code sets out the “hierarchy of road users”, making the uncontroversial point that quicker and/or heavier modes of travel should be especially careful for those who are more vulnerable. While this, as the code says, “most strongly applies” to those in charge of a motorised vehicle, cyclists should be careful for horses, and everyone should be careful for pedestrians, especially children, older people, or people with disabilities.

Much of the negative coverage of the new Highway Code has focused on supposed confusion and ignorance. And I’m sure a good publicity campaign would do something. But to reiterate the earlier point, much of this is standard good sense and courtesy anyway, while other elements, such as the primary position and riding two abreast, have been in the rules for many years but are still routinely unknown to drivers. Maybe the changes to the code aren’t the problem?

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