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Have Highway Code changes made drivers more aggressive?

The Highway Code changes were implemented to a backdrop of sustained attacks on social media and in certain national newspapers, but what have been the real-world effects for cyclists in the UK?

The rollout of changes to the Highway Code at the end of January was overshadowed by online vitriol, misinformed articles, and ranting on radio talk shows. But has anything actually changed on Britain's roads? Do cyclists feel safer? Or are drivers, angered by perceived pandering to those on bicycles, now more aggressive? 

Who better to ask than our readers? Combined we have racked up thousands of miles on UK roads under the new rules, so has anything changed?

> Press misrepresents Highway Code changes – just days before they come into force

Our question was largely triggered by road.cc Simon's chat with a cycling friend while riding to the football in south London last weekend...

"Both of us cycle as our everyday way of getting around, and out of the blue he asked me, 'Have you noticed drivers getting way more aggressive in the past few weeks?'

"I said, 'Could be, what with the Highway Code changes and all the misreporting around them in the press,' and he looked at me blankly. 'What Highway Code changes?' he said.

"So after castigating him for not reading road.cc, I explained them to him and also some of the inaccurate and divisive coverage we've seen in the mainstream media, and he said, 'Yup, that would do it.'"

"That got me thinking - more than four weeks on from the changes, what is other people's experience? Have you noticed drivers following the revised rules, ignoring them, or becoming more aggressive?"

Responding to our request for thoughts over on the road.cc forum, an encouraging number of riders in fact reported noticing an improvement in considerate driving, drivers giving those on two wheels more room, and feeling safer when crossing junctions by bike or on foot.

Rendel Harris said: "In my experience (50 km+ per day in London) there has been a definite improvement in driver behaviour in terms of close passing. At a heuristic estimate I would say around 30 per cent more are really thinking about their passing distance and waiting longer for passing opportunities.

"I haven't noticed any increase in aggression, either. The only real downside is that not every driver thinks about what is in the oncoming lane, several times I've had to move over and hug the gutter because a driver is making a textbook move-into-the-other-lane pass on a cyclist but hasn't checked carefully enough what's coming.

"There are some of life's little ironies that can be relished, but being taken out by a driver who was actually trying to do their best for cyclists would not be one of them…"

While mdavidford noted the positive impact of the changes when off the bike: "As a pedestrian, I've had a number of occasions where a driver has waited patiently for me to cross a side road, where previously daring to set foot on the road would have been met with at least an angry stare and possibly a blast on the horn as they brushed past my nose. It was quite disconcerting the first couple of times."

Back on the bike, hirsute reckons "more drivers are waiting and not overtaking and overtakes are also better. The alleged rear-ending at junctions has not materialised."

While David9694 reported "several oncoming drivers waiting for me, pulling off the road such that I wasn't even sure they'd stopped 'for' me - they didn't need to."

The Highway Code changes were reported negatively by many national newspapers, with the Evening Standard and Express incorrectly reporting that drivers face being fined for not using the Dutch Reach technique for opening a car door.

More recently, the Express ran an online story citing Paul Biggs from the Alliance of British Drivers making calls for a cyclists' driving test.

> Highway Code 'fury': Calls for cyclists' driving test as Mike Graham and Daily Express continue attacking changes

Opinion pieces have also been published attacking and sensationalising the changes. The Daily Mail, for example, published an "error-strewn" Richard Littlejohn column titled 'Bike lane Britain...the GREAT LEAP BACKWARDS'.

While, just this week the press watchdog rejected a complaint over The Sun's "Lunatic Highway Code" article. IPSO ruled that FairFuel UK founder Howard Cox’s column "was clearly presented as an exaggerated and comedic piece of writing".

Despite this string of negative press, the majority of our readers' responses said 'nothing's changed', reporting little to no change on Britain's roads...

brooksby said: "When wearing my 'cyclist' hat or my 'pedestrian' hat, I'm not sure that anything has particularly improved. But, hey, nothing's got worse so that's something..."

Steve K agreed: "I don't think I've noticed any change - same mix of good and bad drivers."

Awavey added: "I'd say no I don't think it has [made drivers more aggressive], with the caveat it still feels too early to judge if people are responding to the changes, or just the publicity, or some third outside factor we haven't accounted for.

"I think anecdotally those that were cautious drivers anyway are simply being more cautious at the moment, to the point they are increasingly becoming annoying with it as they become too cautious. Those that aren't are simply driving as they were before. I've not encountered anyone being overly aggressive of late, even if many still do daft and dangerous things.

"But it's a complex interaction because the drivers you meet are a factor of where you ride and when, which can be decided by weather or boredom or just how you feel that day. I can go on many loops and meet barely any driver and think all in the world is marvellous, and then do the same loop the next week and feel everyone is out to kill me."

Lance Strongarm said: "Honestly, I thought the changes would increase tensions between different modes of transport, but in practice (anecdotally) there has been zero change."

HoarseMann, however, reckons the changes have had a "polarising effect". "The cautious majority have become even more careful, but the reckless idiots seem to be emboldened to drive closer and faster than before.

"In the last month, I've had two drivers angrily beep at me for absolutely no reason other than I was on the road ahead of them. One then swerved to side-swipe me whilst holding down the horn."

Sedis agreed: "Exactly this. The percentage of good overtakes leaving the correct amount of room seems to have increased slightly, however the number of close passes has not been reduced at all and although it is impossible to say for sure, I get the impression that more of these are intentional, rather than careless, than before."

In a more isolated incident, Porky PT reported being passed correctly, but with a sarcastic twist...

"Last week a bloke in a pick-up drove past me at a slow-ish rate observing the 1.5m rule (and maybe a bit more), while at the same time shouting through the lowered passenger window: 'that alright mate?!' in what sounded like a sarcastic manner. He didn't wait for a response. Make of that what you will."

"Still, a sarcastic but safe pass would be an improvement for a lot of drivers," Quiff concluded.

Wycombewheeler was not so lucky: "The day after the new rules came in, a BMW passed me (good wide pass fully on the other side of the road) then screamed move over you c*** through the open window (past his 10? year old son).

"I was riding secondary at most, and he was not delayed for even a second."

You've heard some of our readers' experiences, but how have the Highway Code changes affected your cycling? Are motorists more aggressive? Has there been an improvement in driving? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter...

Dan joined road.cc in 2020, and spent most of his first year (hopefully) keeping you entertained on the live blog. At the start of 2022 he took on the role of news editor. Before joining road.cc, Dan wrote about various sports, including football and boxing for the Daily Express, and covered the weird and wonderful world of non-league football for The Non-League Paper. Part of the generation inspired by the 2012 Olympics, Dan has been 'enjoying' life on two wheels ever since and spends his weekends making bonk-induced trips to the petrol stations of the south of England.

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