Proposed changes to The Highway Code

As part of an initiative to ensure that our roads are being used as safely as possible and to boost cycling and walking across the country a Department of Transport consultation was launched in July 2020 with a view to amending The Highway Code (which applies to England, Scotland and Wales) to improve safety for vulnerable road users.

The three main areas of proposed change were as follows:

  • The introduction of a ‘Hierarchy of Road Users’ ensuring that those on the road who can cause “the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they pose to others”.
  • To clarify the existing rules on “pedestrian priority on pavements and that drivers should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road”.
  • To establish guidance on “safe passing distances and speeds when overtaking cyclists or horse riders, and ensuring that they have priority at junctions when travelling straight ahead”.

The consultation ran until 27 October 2020 and on 30 July 2021 the government published the outcome of the consultation, setting out a review of the responses received. There was an overall percentage of respondents agreeing with the individual changes (comprising 33 amendments to the current rules and two additional rules) which ranged from 68-96%. Some valid points were raised by those who disagreed with the changes and those will be subject to further consideration.

Separately, between 1 and 29 March 2021 Highways England also carried out a consultation, seeking views on proposed changes to The Highway Code “to improve safety for users of motorways and high-speed roads”. The outcome of that consultation was published at the end of June. Set out below are examples of some of the proposed changes.

Speed limits

In respect of “General rules, techniques and advice for all drivers”, proposed changes include:

  • Clarification that “the presence of street lights generally means that there is a 30mph (48km/h) speed limit unless otherwise specified”.
  • There is also an update to emphasise that road signs are what should help drivers understand what the speed limit is, not the general road type. The proposed wording includes:

    “Local signed speed limits may apply, for example:
    • 20mph (rather than 30mph) in some built-up areas
    • 50mph (rather than 60mph) on stretches of road with sharp bends
    • On motorways and dual carriageways, signs which display the speed for the road within a red ring can be used to vary the maximum speed limit.”
    • This is in response to the increasing number of roads that have signed 20mph zones in built-up areas.

Documentation

  • In the section on ‘what to do before you set off’, an amendment will remind drivers to have the right documents, namely – valid driving licence, car insurance policy, up-to-date tax, and a recent MOT certificate.
  • The amendment also advises taking a fully-charged mobile phone for emergencies.

Motorways

There are many additions and changes proposed in the section on motorways (including a number of changes with a focus on improving safety on smart motorways).

The proposed changes include:

  • How to recognise different motorway signs e.g. temporary speed limits, lane closures.
  • Emphasising that signs are the primary way to know the speed limit on the motorway – it’s not a blanket 70mph.
  • Guidance on “the use of hard shoulders that become extra lanes during periods of congestion”.

Tailgating

  • An amendment to the section on stopping distances will explain how tailgating works and what drivers can do to avoid it.
  • The new section will also emphasise that tailgating is an offence and is enforced by the police.

Breakdowns

  • Addition of a new rule to show drivers what counts as a ‘place of relative safety’ in the event that driver’s vehicle breakdown on a busy road.
  • The proposed rule also describes how to use emergency refuge areas in the event of a breakdown on a motorway.
  • Drivers are instructed to move left when they run into difficulties. This could be into an emergency area, hard shoulder, motorway service area or lay-by.
  • Where there is no hard shoulder, the advice provided in the proposed rule is to look for an emergency area.

Next steps

Following the Highways England consultation the Department of Transport laid the proposed amendments before both Houses of Parliament on 21 June 2021 for a 40 day period.

The proposed changes in relation to vulnerable road users (considered under the separate Department of Transport consultation) are subject to further amendment to take account of the feedback received.

The Department of Transport has indicated that the wording of some of the rules will be changed where appropriate to reflect the need for all road users to behave responsibly. Several concerns were raised about the proposal to give way to pedestrians waiting at a junction with the main concern being that this was confusing and could result in more accidents. The wording of this is being reviewed.

These will then similarly be laid before parliament.

Subject to parliamentary approval, work will then be carried out with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to update The Highway Code (both in its online format and the production of a new hard copy).

Comment

Whilst the hierarchy of road users is not an entirely new philosophy the growing concern amongst motorists and insurers is that pedestrians may take more risks on the road in light of the rule changes. There will also be the concern that claims bought by vulnerable road users do not form part of the new OIC portal rules which would reduce damages and costs.

The communication of these rules is extremely important and the education of all road users is going to be key. Despite the changes, the government have made it clear that the new rules do not detract from the need for all road users to ensure the safety of themselves and those around them.

We envisage that there may well be a slight shift in the way that courts adjudge liability particularly when cyclists and motorists are involved. We expect that claimant’s pleadings will be amended to keenly reflect the changes to the code but we do not envisage drastic changes to outcomes when these matters reach trial. Evidence collation from an early stage is going to be key to defending claims bought by vulnerable road users. Photographs from the accident scene along with detailed locus reports and independent witness statements are all key items of evidence to assist a defence.

Motor liability as we know it is changing. There are a number of factors which will be impacting the use of our roads in the near future including the increased use of electric vehicles and various other vehicle safety measures such as blind spot warnings and the forward collision warning. The changes to The Highway Code therefore cannot be considered in isolation in terms of how motor liability will be affected. It is to be noted that The Highway Code does not consider the impact of electric vehicles as it was not within the remit of the consultation.

The changes to The Highway Code bring new responsibilities to the driver in many situations – those involving speeding and tailgating shall continue to be areas frequently exercised in the courts both in criminal trials and civil actions. It is reassuring to see The Highway Code is being reviewed and adapted to respond to modern society and the incorporation of new technologies (a recent example being a consultation on proposals to include a section on automated vehicles).

Related item: Autonomous vehicles update