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Your non-hysterical guide to changes in the Highway Code

Changes to the Highway Code have been misinterpreted online – here’s your guide to what’s actually happening.

Changes to the Highway Code effective from the end of January will give greater priority to vulnerable road users, the government has announced. 

The changes, effective from January 29, will expand rights of way for cyclists and pedestrians to ensure greater safety on the roads – but the announcement has caused some furore online. 

With headlines claiming drivers will be “fined £1,000 for opening their car door with the wrong hand” and warning of a “spike in road rage incidents”, here’s your no-nonsense guide to what’s actually changing – and why.

A hierarchy of responsibility on the roads

Acknowledging that those in charge of vehicles have the greatest potential to cause harm on the roads, the government has introduced a new “hierarchy of road users” in the Highway Code.

This change introduces the idea that those in charge of vehicles bear the greatest responsibility to take care and reduce the danger they pose to others

“This principle applies most strongly to drivers of large goods and passenger vehicles, vans/minibuses, cars/taxis and motorcycles,” the code reads. 

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However, this does not mean that more vulnerable road users bear no responsibility for their own safety on the roads. 

“None of this detracts from the responsibility of ALL road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders, to have regard for their own and other road users’ safety,” the new wording reads. 

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Greater priority for pedestrians and cyclists 

Previously, drivers of vehicles had priority at junctions, but this is changing so that pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road at a junction now have priority. 

Cyclists will also have priority when travelling straight ahead at junctions. 

The new code says drivers must give way to pedestrians on a zebra crossing, and to pedestrians and cyclists on a parallel crossing.

Previously, drivers only had to give way if a pedestrian was already on the crossing. 

Drivers are also advised that they must not cut across cyclists, horse riders or horse-drawn vehicles going straight ahead, nor turn into a junction if to do so would cause these road users to swerve or stop.

The code continues to encourage pedestrians and cyclists to be aware of their surroundings and make sure they’re visible while crossing roads. 

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Cycling in the middle of the road 

The claim that cyclists are being instructed to ride in the middle of the road has caused uproar online, but is not entirely correct.

The new code instructs cyclists to ride in the middle of the road in certain situations where increased visibility is essential.

These situations include on quiet roads, in slower-moving traffic and at the approach to junctions or road narrowings where it would be unsafe for drivers to overtake.

In the first two situations, the new code advises cyclists to move over to the left to allow vehicles to pass if it’s safe to do so. 

The updated code says that on busy roads with lots of fast-moving vehicles, cyclists should allow traffic to overtake by moving to the left. 

Ultimately, these new rules reflect what is often already happening on roads.

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Riding two abreast 

Misinformation has also spread online about changes to rules around cyclists travelling two abreast on the roads. 

The rules around this haven’t changed significantly in the new Highway Code, with the original code reading: “Never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends.”

The new code reads: “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.”

This means that both the old and new Highway Code allow for riding two abreast in the road, while encouraging cyclists to move into single file to allow traffic to pass where safe to do so. 

The ‘Dutch reach’ 

Some reaction to the new Highway Code has claimed that new rules will see drivers fined for “using the wrong hand to open their car door”. This is, again, a misinterpretation of the code. 

A new rule added to the Highway Code reads: “Where you are able to do so, you should open the door using your hand on the opposite side to the door you are opening; for example, use your left hand to open a door on your right-hand side.”

This move, known as “the Dutch reach” is to encourage car users to look over their shoulder to make sure they don’t hit cyclists when they open their car door. 

Drivers would only be fined in the instance that opening their car door injured or endangered a cyclist or any other road user, as this is an offence under statute – not the Highway Code. 

This has been an offence since 1988 as part of the Road Traffic Act and carries a fine of £1,000. 

Why are the rules changing? 

The Highway Code changes come as the government announces a package of funding to increase “active travel” in the UK.

The government is attempting to encourage more people to walk and cycle as part of efforts to boost health and reduce carbon emissions from vehicles

The changes to the code aim to make it safer and more appealing for people to walk and cycle instead of using their cars. 

Data shows that the number of cyclists killed on British roads increased by 40 per cent in 2020, leading to calls from cycling groups to improve road safety.

Cycling surged in popularity during the pandemic, with levels rising more than in the previous 20 years put together in 2020. 

Independent polling from the Department for Transport (DfT) also shows strong public support for active travel schemes, with active travel schemes supported, on average, by a ratio of two-to-one.

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