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“Cracking the Code” — the proposed changes to the Highway Code and what it means for vulnerable road users…

We take a look at the proposed changes to the Highway Code and what it means for vulnerable road users.

A long history

The Highway Code was first introduced in 1931, following the implementation of the Road Traffic Act 1930, and it has been periodically updated since. It governs the driving of an estimated 27 million vehicles in Great Britain and it is made up of over 300 rules, many of which are legal requirements, whilst others provide advisory guidance.

The Department of Transport has recently closed a three-month consultation process on proposed changes to the Code, with the final changes expected to be announced around April 2021.

Why is the Code important?

Despite most non-professional drivers only having a basic understanding of the Code, it continues to influence our daily attitude and behaviour towards other road users. It also plays an important role in the treatment of road users by the police and the courts when considering criminal charges or civil liability.

Non-compliance with the Code’s legal requirements may result in fines, points and/or criminal prosecution. It may also have a bearing on the outcome of a civil claim arising out of the Road Traffic Act 1988. A failure to adhere to its advisory guidance may be taken into account by a court when determining liability.

The proposed changes

  1. The proposed amendments aim to improve road safety for everyone and, in particular, for ‘Vulnerable Road Users’ (pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders and motorcyclists). The updated Code is intended to reflect recent developments in society, to include increasing urbanisation, congestion and pollution, a desire for ‘active’ travel to improve health and wellbeing (such as walking, cycling and running) and infrastructure improvements to encourage sustainable travel
  2. The introduction of the concept of a hierarchy of road users - this is essentially a hierarchy of responsibility, the aim of which is to ensure that the road users who can do the greatest harm bear the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger that they pose to other road users. It reflects the fact that larger, heavier vehicles result in more deaths and serious injury on UK roads. The concept does not absolve any road user of their responsibility towards others. Rather, it is intended to ensure that the needs of more vulnerable road users are considered first.
  3. Clarifying the rules on (a) pedestrian priority on pavements and (b) for drivers and riders to give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road.
  4. Establishing guidance on safe passing distances and speeds when overtaking cyclists or horse riders and ensuring they have priority at junctions when travelling straight ahead.

The Department of Transport is now considering the responses to the proposals, to include a response submitted by Weightmans following our own consultation with clients.

Mixed reactions to the proposals

In a recent poll from independent road safety charity, IAM Road Smart, it was noted that the majority of the 3,600 drivers and motorcyclists polled supported the introduction of the hierarchy concept and the proposed safe passing distance. However, 71% felt the proposals to give pedestrians priority when turning into and out of junctions would increase tension between different categories of road users, especially in cities. The poll also revealed some discontent on the failure to make the wearing of a cycle helmet compulsory and the failure to mandate cyclists to use available cycle lanes or tracks.

The RAC is broadly supportive of the proposed amendments. It has, however, queried how safe it is to advise drivers to give way to pedestrians waiting to cross a road when traffic from another direction may be approaching.

Charities for vulnerable road users have largely welcomed the proposed changes:

  • Living Streets, the charity for everyday walking, welcomed the inclusion of stronger priorities for pedestrians as a positive step towards promoting active travel and in supporting a sustainable, efficient transport system.
  • The British Horse Society has welcomed much-needed guidance to other road users on how to safely pass horses.
  • Cycling UK has welcomed greater consideration for cyclists and has outlined key changes to the Code which will make cycling safer, to include junction priority, clearer guidance on overtaking cyclists and the use of the Dutch Reach method when opening vehicle doors.

The Motorcycle Action Group, a rights organisation promoting motorcycling, have called on the Department of Transport to make it clear that the changes are intended to also apply to the treatment of motorcyclists, as they are also a category of vulnerable road user.

Effective messaging

Fundamental changes to the Code are likely to follow in a matter of months. Exactly how the final changes will be communicated remains unclear. The need for clear and effective messaging about the changes and the reasons behind them, over an extended period and using different mediums, will be paramount to their success.   


The proposed changes, if implemented, have the potential to reduce road accidents involving vulnerable road users, drive down road offence prosecution rates and insurance premiums and encourage road users to better consider the safety needs of others. Clearer guidance should also ensure that any expensive liability arguments involving vulnerable road users are curtailed and brought to a swift conclusion limiting the costs of litigation.

If effective communication and education do not take place prior to the approved changes being introduced, confusion may reign and there could well be an increase in road traffic accidents, fines, penalty points, criminal convictions and civil claims. As always, there will be a huge number of interested parties watching this unfold and time will tell as to the success of such an initiative.

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