In Focus

Does the Highway Code prioritise cyclists?

Updated code introduces new ‘hierarchy of road users’ that places drivers below pedestrians and cyclists

Pity Britain’s poor, oppressed motorists, said Catherine Bennett in The Observer. Their “right to road domination” has already been curtailed by the creation of all those low traffic neighbourhoods; now their status has been further downgraded by the Highway Code.

The updated code, which came into force last weekend, introduces a new “hierarchy of road users” that places them below pedestrians and cyclists, on the basis that road users who can do the most harm have the greatest responsibility to avoid it. Vehicles must now give way to people waiting to cross at junctions; cyclists are being told to position themselves more prominently in the road. This has infuriated many motorists. “Goes against the natural order of things,” fumed one Telegraph reader.

It makes sense to prioritise the most vulnerable, said The Times. But on that basis we should be doing more to protect pedestrians from cyclists. There’s currently no offence in law of causing death by dangerous cycling. There should be. Motorists require licences, insurance and number plates. Why shouldn’t we require the same of cyclists? Because it would be impractical and would drive almost all cyclists off the road, said Peter Walker in The Guardian. That’s why “no one has been so stupid as to try it”. Bikes pose a trivial risk compared to cars. Of the 1,700-odd deaths on UK roads every year, cyclists cause “only a handful”.

The Highway Code changes don’t mean abandoning our cities to “Lycra-clad lunatics” or “anti-car fanatics”, said Ross Lydall in the London Evening Standard. They’re just an attempt to improve road safety. Nobody will be fined for failing to open their car door from inside with their opposite hand – the so-called “Dutch reach” that, by making you twist your torso, means you’re more likely to spot cyclists behind. But if more people do it, so much the better.

The best solution to road safety is to physically separate cyclists from cars by creating more dedicated bike routes, said Henry Mance in the FT. Still, the new code is a modest step forward. Even if most drivers remain unaware of it, some will pick up on the changes, making our roads a little “more welcoming for pedestrians and cyclists”.

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