The communication of the purpose behind the Highway Code changes has been poorly communicated. Historically, there has been tension between cyclists and vehicle drivers and large amounts of that tension is a lack of understanding by both types of road users.
The purpose behind the changes in relation to cyclists was to improve cycle safety and reduce casualties by allowing cyclists to adopt positions that would encourage safer driving by other vehicles. A good example of this was in relation to the position a cyclist is expected to take on the road. Traditionally this was never included within the Highway Code, but drivers expected them to adopt a position alongside the kerb.
A combination of poor road surfaces and the desire to dissuade vehicles to overtake cyclists led to the Highway Code adopting the position that cyclists can in fact ride in the centre of the road/lane.
Crucially this was intended to apply on quieter roads and in slow-moving traffic, or on the approach to junctions.
Poor media representation
But a combination of poor communication and misreporting by the media led to headlines such as:
“Driver's fury as bike riders take to the middle of the road”: Daily Mail
“New Highway Code rule that tells cyclists to pedal in the middle of the lane takes effect today.”: The Sun
The fact that the Government had failed to adequately publicise the changes in the months leading up to the new Highway Code created the perfect storm.
In anything, our experience when handling Road Traffic Claims on behalf of both cyclists and other road users is that the tension between the various road users has been exacerbated.
The new hierarchy
The very nature of the content of the Highway Code has done nothing to assist this by referring to the “Hierarchy of Road Users.”
Disputes between the various road users have often led to claims that one or the other feel as though they own the road. The creation of a “hierarchy” underscores this tension by validating the principle that some road users are more important than others.
The principle behind the “hierarchy” is actually spot on. The more vulnerable the road user the more protection they need.
But in the same way, they failed to publicise the reasons for the changes and the important safety benefits of the changes. They have also failed to really educated road users on why some need greater protection.
I would argue a greater focus on publicising the urgent need to address the safety issues and the reasons behind the changes - in particular a better briefing of the media – may have tempered some of the misconceptions that have only inflamed tensions on the road.
We haven’t noticed any significant change in the nature of the incidents we see. There is very little evidence to suggest the changes have been adopted by motorists, and whilst cyclists may feel more emboldened to adopt more dominant positions when using the road there is little evidence to suggest this is translating into fewer collisions.
The changes themselves are positive – but they must be followed up with clearer publicity. Even now more can be done to improve the understanding of the changes.
There are huge plans in place within many local councils to adopt longer-term transport strategies to encourage cycling within and around our towns and cities.
My view is that in comparison to structural changes in the way our road network operates the changes to the Highway Code are unlikely to be the catalyst for safer cycling.
But they offer a glimpse into a change in perspective when local authorities plan through transport strategy – with cycling and walking at the forefront of development. In that sense, motorists may be disgruntled to note that the hierarchy of road users is pivotal in those longer-term plans.
We are seeing the adoption of lower speed limits, and within those local transport strategies were are seeing purposeful moves to dissuade motoring in and around residential areas.
Stuart Snape is a cycling safety expert and Managing Partner at Graham Coffey & Co. Solicitors.