What do the changes to the Highway Code mean for cyclists?

Cycling is undoubtedly the best sport in the world, right? But as all cyclists know, there is a dark side to sharing the roads with other vehicle users. To help prevent our roads from becoming even more toxic, the Department of Transport has evolved the Highway Code so that, in theory, cyclists and other non-petrol-powered road users are granted more protection. The changes that come into force this month include new guidance on safely overtaking cyclists, encouragement for drivers to avoid opening their doors into riders, a hierarchy of road users, and giving cyclists and pedestrians priority at junctions without traffic signals. 

However, Cycling UK, one of our partners, has found flaws. The charity has always campaigned for safer roads, but they believe that not enough is being done to inform drivers of the new advice. So, to spread the word, we’ve looked at these changes and what they mean for cyclists. 

Changes to overtaking 

The changes suggest that drivers should leave a gap of 1.5 metres when overtaking at up to 30mph, with the gap increasing at higher speeds. We hope this means that cyclists will encounter fewer close passes and feel more confident in traffic. (Rule 163 of the Highway Code).

The Dutch Reach

Rule 239 of the Code has been changed to bring in recommendations on how drivers can avoid ‘dooring’ cyclists. This introduces the ‘Dutch Reach’ technique of opening the car door with the opposite hand (with the door to your right, you reach across with your left), so that you automatically look over your shoulder and can see approaching cyclists and motorcyclists.

Protection for vulnerable road users

A new recommended hierarchy system will recognise that those who pose the greatest risk on the roads have a higher level of responsibility. This means that cyclists will have a responsibility to look out for pedestrians, and drivers will have a responsibility to look out for both bikers and pedestrians. (Rule’s H1 and H2 of the Highway Code).

Junctions 

Another piece of advice recommends that drivers should not turn across the path of a cyclist that is continuing ahead on the same road, and all road users should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross a road into which, or from which, you are turning. In practical terms, this should mean that drivers will wait for cyclists to pass a junction before turning in and pedestrians have more protection when crossing a junction without traffic signals. (Rule H3 of the Highway Code).

The limitations

The main limitations to the new rules centre around the Highway Code itself and the lack of promotion about the changes by the authorities. The semantics of the code and the difference between ‘must’ and ‘should’ is a particular issue. The former refers to legal requirements meaning that a road user is disobeying the law if not followed, but the latter is advisory wording that refers to guidelines. As these recent changes are mostly advice or recommendations and not laws, there’s a very real worry that drivers could simply just ignore them, especially if they haven’t heard about the revisions. 

This has concerned Cycling UK as a recent AA poll found that two-thirds of 13,000 people asked had no idea about the changes and this lack of understanding may lead to more issues, and more arguments, between road users. The charity is lobbying the government to carry out a long term and funded campaign so that everyone has time and opportunity to learn the new rules.

As their head of campaigns, Duncan Dollimore says: “Now is the time to right the misunderstanding on our roads, not tomorrow when it is too late.”

 

As is so often the case, guidance written down on paper is one thing, but it’s a completely different story when this advice is applied to real-world situations where one road user is on a pushbike and the other is sitting behind the wheel of a one-tonne metal box. 

We hope that these changes do have the intended effect of making the roads safer for vulnerable road users, but it’s going to take a while. For now, enjoy your cycling, know your rights, and practise your own safe riding techniques so that you get the most out of your bike.