From a legal and cyclist’s perspective, the Highway Code has been due an overhaul for a while. Many of the rules in the Code are legal requirements. As it stands, the Highway Code doesn’t send the right messages to those who might be considering taking up the activity and reinforces the sad belief of many motorists that pedestrians and cyclists are merely an inconvenience on our roads.
An uptake in day-to-day cycling could do so much to improve our health, reducing the burden on the NHS for treatment of avoidable problems. Not only this, it would also reduce congestion and improve air quality in urban areas, and even increase productivity at work.
Our mindset should be of promoting walking and cycling rather than promoting the use of motor vehicles. Active travel should be made attractive and a viable option for many people for whom it would be a suitable replacement for motor vehicles. The 101 cycling deaths and 470 pedestrian deaths in 2017 is unacceptable. Proper strategy and investment is the key but we should also have a Highway Code that’s fit for purpose.
With that in mind, is the current Highway Code fit for purpose? And, if it needs updating to help keep cyclists safe, how should it be updated?
The Department for Transport’s recent recommendation is that the Highway Code should include the following updates:
Motor vehicle occupants should use the “Dutch reach” to avoid car dooring passing cyclists i.e. a method of opening the car door by reaching across your body with the hand furthest from the door. This method forces the occupant of the car to turn and look behind them for cyclists before opening the door.
Clearly, the responsibility should rest on the motorist to look out for cyclists before opening the door in the first place. This is a frighteningly simple cultural change that we’re all capable of doing to save lives. The alternative for cyclists is to continue cycling more than a car door’s width from parked cars to avoid being knocked off by a car door being flung open without looking.
I’m sure we’ve all see the footage of transport secretary Chris Grayling knocking a cyclist off his bike in this way in 2016. I’m currently acting for a client who suffered a serious knee injury in similar circumstances and there have been tragic incidents where this type of inattention has caused people to lose their lives by knocking them into oncoming traffic. It’s a criminal offence and gives rise to a civil claim too.
West Midlands Police have been followed by a number of other forces in clamping down on “close passes”. The recommendation for clearer guidance for motorists on passing cyclists considerately and safely is to be welcomed but the current guidance is pretty clear: Rule 163 says drivers should give “as much room as you would when overtaking a car”; however this is not practised by many drivers. The time might have come to specify the distance that should be given in terms of metres.
A lot of close passes don’t cause an accident but they are very damaging to cycling. They frighten cyclists and discourage future journeys. Close passes also put off would be cyclists who think that it’s too great a risk to their own safety to start cycling.
Rule 59 recommending that cyclists should wear reflective or fluorescent clothing and helmets should also be removed from the Code. The clothing point gives motorists an easy cop out i.e. how many times have we read or heard motorists saying something like “I just didn’t see them, they weren’t wearing high-viz”.
Motorists have a responsibility to drive in a manner that enables them to share the roads with vulnerable road users. The recommendation that helmets and special clothing is necessary does nothing to normalise cycling or send the important messages that cycling is a convenient and safe mode of transport for many.
Whilst the DFT's suggestions are welcome, the whole emphasis of the Code needs to change. We need to shift more responsibility onto motorists.
Let’s not forget that cars, vans, and lorries are potentially lethal weapons. Over 99% of all pedestrian deaths on our roads last year were caused by motor vehicles. In addition to the issues flagged up above, the emphasis in the following examples from Rules 67, 74 and 77 prove this point:
I’m in no way suggesting that a revamp of the Highway Code is going to improve our cycling experience in this country, our Government clearly have to implement more practical measures. However, at least it’s a start towards educating motorists as to what more can be done to reduce avoidable accidents.
If we are ever going to achieve a culture of cycling in this country then the very least we should have is a fit-for-purpose Highway Code as the foundation for a better strategy towards encouraging active travel.
After taking up cycling to commute between Bristol and Bath, Mark has seen all sorts of incidents and has become a keen advocate for cycling and protecting the rights of cyclists.
Mark is now lucky enough to combine his passion for cycling with his day job as a cycling solicitor at RWK Goodman.