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Four suggestions to update the Highway Code in favour of cyclists

Mark Hambleton suggests four areas which could be updated in the Highway Code to improve safety for cyclists.

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:

The “Dutch Reach”

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. 

Addressing close passing

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. 

Addressing victim-blaming

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. 

Addressing causative potency

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:

  • Cyclists should “look well ahead for obstructions in the road, such as drains, pot-holes and parked vehicles so that you do not have to swerve suddenly to avoid them” – not easy to see road defects in advance in busy areas where there are lots of other hazards to monitor.
  • Cyclists should “…watch out for doors being opened…” – how do you do that, it is often at the very last moment that you notice, when it is too late to do anything about it.
  • Cyclist should “be aware of traffic coming up behind you” – obviously the onus should be on the approaching vehicle.
  • “if you [cyclist] are turning right…it may be safer to wait on the left until there is a safe gap or to dismount and push your cycle across the road” – if that is the requirement then the road layout should be improved and motorists should drive in such a way that it is not dangerous for a vulnerable road user to make a simple turn. 
  • At roundabouts; you [cyclist] may feel safer walking your cycle round on the pavement or verge. If you decide to ride round keeping to the left-hand lane you should be aware that drivers may not easily see you, take extra care when cycling across exits. You may need to signal right to show you are not leaving the roundabout and watch out for vehicles crossing your path to leave or join the roundabout – what good does it do to be aware that drivers may not see you? We should all be safe to assume that other road users will see us, whatever our mode of transport. 

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.

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