Changes to the highway code and the possible consequences to personal injury claims

Is the Highway Code law?

The Highway Code was first published in 1931 and has been updated regularly to reflect current practice and road use. 

The code was designed to help all road users, whether they be car drivers, cyclists, horse riders or pedestrians, to be safe on the roads.

The Highway Code is not a legal document. It is a code of good practice and as such is not enforceable although many of the instructions contained within the code are backed up by law, for example the offence of careless driving. A failure to comply with the rules cannot lead to a fine, a prosecution or to a driving disqualification. However, failure to comply with the code can be used to establish liability in a civil claim. 

Rules for all types of road users will be updated in the amendments to the Highway Code which  will come into effect on the 29thJanuary 2022. 

Why are the rules changing?

The changes follow a public consultation on a review of The Highway Code to improve road safety for people walking, cycling and riding horses (known as “vulnerable road users”).

The key changes 

In total, nine sections of The Highway Code will be updated, with 50 rules being added or updated. This article considers the most important and perhaps some of the more controversial changes. 

A new hierarchy of road users 

The new rules introduce a risk-based hierarchy of road users which seek to give protection to the most vulnerable people on the road.

The hierarchy is as follows:-

  1. Pedestrians
  2. Cyclists
  3. Horse riders
  4. Motorcyclists
  5. Cars
  6. Vans and minibuses
  7. Large passenger vehicles and HGVs 

The idea is that those who can do the most harm to other road users have the greatest responsibility on the road. The intention is that all road users should look out for everyone else on the road. The rules still however emphasise that the hierarchy does not remove the need for everyone to act responsibly.  

Priority for pedestrians 

Before the new rules came into place drivers had priority at junctions unless the road user was half-way across the road and cyclists, drivers and horse riders only had to stop at zebra and parallel crossings if a pedestrian was already walking across. 

From now on drivers have to give way to a pedestrian waiting to cross the road when they are turning into a junction. 

Drivers, cyclists and horse riders also have to give way to pedestrians waiting at zebra crossings and cyclists and pedestrians waiting at parallel crossings.

This rule change has caused quite a lot of debate in the press.  There is a concern that the new rule could cause more collisions as cars wait at busy roads. 

New priority for cyclists when cars are turning 

Car drivers are now being asked to consider cyclists as though they are another motor vehicle. The new rules advise drivers against turning in such a way that cuts across a cyclist’s right of way.

Drivers must not turn at a junction if to do so would cause the cyclist, horse rider or horse drawn vehicle going straight ahead to stop or swerve. Drivers are being told that they should stop and wait for a safe gap in the flow of cyclists if necessary.

This is something that the majority of drivers do already.

The amended rules states that a driver should not cut across cyclists, horse riders or horse drawn vehicles going ahead when they are turning into or out of a junction or changing direction or lane.

Positioning of cyclists 

The new rules permit cyclists to ride in the centre of a lane to make themselves more visible on quiet roads, in slow-moving traffic and when approaching junctions where overtaking could be unsafe.

Cyclists now have to cycle no less than half a metre from the verge or kerb or even ‘further where it is safer’ and drivers must leave at least 1.5 metres of space when overtaking a cyclist at speeds up to 30mph. Driver’s must allow even more space at speeds in excess of 30mph. 

The updated code will explain that people cycling should take care when passing parked vehicles, leaving enough room (a door’s width or 1 metre) to avoid being hit if a car door is opened

The dutch reach method 

For the first time drivers are being given specific advice about how to exit their vehicle. 

The Dutch Reach method is where a person opens their car door with the hand furthest away from the door. This forces them to turn their head and look backwards which may mean that they spot a cyclist or motorcyclist preventing a collision.  

How will the changes to the Highway Code affect personal injury claims?

It is likely that the changes will make it easier for drivers to be prosecuted over accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists.

The changes to the rules afford cyclists, horse riders and pedestrians much greater protection on the road. This change in the landscape will be noted by personal injury lawyers. 

Before the changes to the code, liability in cases involving pedestrians and cyclists was often difficult to establish except in the most clear-cut case.

Previously in personal injury cases involving pedestrians and motorists, it has been very difficult to establish liability against the driver where the pedestrian had not reached the centre of the road when crossing. This seems set to change.

It will be interesting to see how the changes will affect the court’s approach to issues of liability between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists.

The new additions to the code underline things that most people already do and should be welcomed by the majority of road users. The changes are aimed at reducing the number of people being killed or injured as a result of a road traffic collision.

The way that people use the roads is constantly changing and the Highway Code must evolve to keep step with these changes. It is also important that the public are aware of these changes. 

Matthew Claxson is a partner in the Moore Barlow Personal injury team who specialises in accessing rehabilitation for people who have suffered major trauma.  If you have suffered a serious injury, then contact our Personal injury team on 0800 157 7611.