What impact will the updated guidance have on would-be cyclists? Alex Ballinger explores the welcome rule changes impacting bike riders
This piece first appeared in the February edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
After so many years riding a bike out on the road, it’s easy (and perhaps essential) to become desensitized to the more common safety risks posed by drivers. With close-passes being at least a daily occurrence for any cyclist, the hazard of being left-hooked by an impatient motorist, and the ever-present possibility that someone might open their car door into your path, bike riders in the UK are far from protected as things stand.
During the coronavirus lockdowns, I lost count of the number of friends who messaged me to say they were A) enjoying riding their bike on the quiet streets, or B) in the market for a new bike, tempted by the deserted roads as drivers had nowhere to be.
Now nearly two years on from the first lockdown, almost all of those friends have put the bike away, and all for the same reason – ‘the roads are too busy, I don’t feel safe’.
In recent weeks I’ve been reminded of exactly how it feels to ride a bike through the streets of London, flanked by double-decker buses, articulated lorries, and private hire cars, with just 10kg of Brompton bike separating rider from tonnes of steel, fiberglass and rubber. But there could be a silver-lining for cyclists.
The new code
Following years of campaigning by cycling advocacy groups, a new Highway Code is finally here, complete with great protection of cyclists and the inclusion of a welcome ‘hierarchy of road users’. The final text of the amendments for the code, which sets out advice, guidelines and mandatory rules for road users, was due to be published in late January, but the Government has long suggested that all of the proposed amendments would be included.
In July 2020, the Government began consulting with the British public on how the Highway Code should look, then publishing the results from the 21,000 responses and in July 2021, the Department for Transport (DfT) indicated that it intended to introduce all of the proposed amendments from the consultation.
But what are the biggest changes and, most importantly, what do the rules mean for cyclists? Cycling UK, the advocacy charity behind much of the campaigning for the updated Highway Code, has set out some of the more significant additions:
– The ‘Hierarchy of Road Users’
– Simplifying the rules for non-signalised junctions
– New rules to tackle dangerous overtaking and ‘close passes’
– The inclusion of the Dutch Reach, to help prevent ‘car-dooring’
Hierarchy of road users
Potentially the most important of changes is the introduction of a hierarchy of road users, which means the Highway Code will now recognise that road users who present a great danger to others have a higher level of responsibility. Effectively, car and HGV drivers have greater responsibility to act safely over more vulnerable groups like pedestrians and cyclists. The addition to the code was broadly supported by the public during the Government consultation, with 79% of people agreeing to its introduction.
According to Cycling UK, nearly three-quarters of crashes involving cyclists take place at junctions. The new change in the Highway Code should address that, by simplifying the 14 existing rules. In short, the new rule will mean drivers turning at unsignalised junctions should give way to pedestrians or cyclists going straight ahead across their path, offering greater priority to walkers and riders. This should in turn reduce left-hook collisions and make it easier for local authorities to build cycle tracks that have priority at junctions.
The new Highway Code will also include more detailed guidance on what constitutes a ‘close-pass’ on cyclists and horse riders. Under the new guidance, drivers should leave at least 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists at speeds up to 30mph, and then give them more space when overtaking at higher speeds, again offering greater safety to more vulnerable road users.
The Dutch Reach
Another welcome introduction to the code for cyclists is the ‘Dutch Reach,’ a practice that encourages drivers to lean across and use their non-doorside arm when opening their car door to exit their vehicle – this is designed to prevent ‘car-dooring’, which results in hundreds of injuries each year (according to DfT stats) and on some occasions fatal crashes.
Alongside these four fundamental changes, there are a number of other amendments to the Highway Code that will affect cyclists. Rule 66 will be a clarification on the rules around cyclists riding two-abreast, which was previously confusing and may have suggested that cyclists shouldn’t be riding alongside one another.
The new rule says: “[Cyclists should] be considerate of the needs of other road users when riding in groups. 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. Be aware of drivers behind you and allow them to overtake (for example, by moving into single file or stopping) when you feel it is safe to let them do so.”
The implications of this particular change are not yet clear, but some experts (including Cycling Weekly magazine) have suggested this could put traditional club rides under threat.
If the new rule creates an expectation that cyclists should stop to let motor vehicles pass, riding in groups could be very difficult, although the true impact of this change is yet to be seen.
Other changes include guidance on road positioning (rules 67, 72, and 213), priority at cycle tracks and advice that cyclists do not have to use them (rule 140), drivers should allow cyclists and pedestrians to cross in front of them in slow traffic (rule 151), rules on advanced stop lines (rule 178), and drivers should give priority to cyclists at roundabouts (rule 186).
So what does this all mean?
While the UK continues to lag behind other countries where cycling is a national mode of transport, the Netherlands often cited as the gold standard, this change to the rules is a welcome acknowledgement by the Government that work is desperately needed.
The hierarchy of road users will hopefully begin to instill in drivers that getting behind the wheel of the motor vehicle is not a right, it’s a privilege, and one that comes with significant harm to the planet, and to other people. While it’s not a silver bullet, with any luck it might be the start of the reset we need in the national mentality when it comes to cars.
Updating wording giving greater priority to cyclists and pedestrians, at crossings, junctions, and when riders are filtering, is again a step closer to acknowledging that active transport is a valuable and essential asset, and that people should be choosing to walk or cycle.
The one thing I would like to see next is a change in the driving test process, a change in the licensing system that makes drivers acknowledge the impact they’re having on the world before turning on the engine – a reminder that driving is not owed to you as soon as you turn 17.
If we truly want to reduce congestion in our cities, reduce the carbon impact of motor vehicles, and get more people riding their bikes, for fitness, mental health, would-be bike riders need assurance that their lives matter once they’re outside of their cars.