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My way or the highway?

BMF Political and Technical Services Director Anna Zee finds some troubling implications in proposed changes to the Highway Code.

One of the ways for anyone to make their opinions known on issues is to respond to consultations. One of the consultations I am currently looking at on behalf of the BMF is on the Highway Code.

The Highway Code proposals reflect a major shift in the UK’s road safety thinking. No, I’ll rephrase that – the road safety thinking has been shifting over several years and these Highway Code proposals are a concrete realisation of that thinking.

The biggest change is the introduction of a hierarchy of road users, with the most vulnerable (pedestrians) at one end and those capable of the greatest damage (HGVs) at the other end. Motorcyclists rank fourth after pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders. Having established this hierarchy, the idea is that you go on to make those capable of causing greater damage take greater responsibility for causing harm. Thus, the blame for injury to a pedestrian, for example, will fall on the vehicle driver by default – an outcome which has been pursued for a long time by pedestrian and cyclist groups.

In theory at least, this could be interpreted as being beneficial to motorcyclists if the same principle were actually to be applied when a motorcyclist gets hit by a car. Just make sure you don’t hit a pedestrian, a cyclist or a horse rider.

So, having established the principle, how does this change the Highway Code? In some ways, not that much. It has always been the case that vehicles must give way to pedestrians already on a zebra crossing. That hasn’t changed, but there is a new clause stating that vehicles should give way to pedestrians waiting to cross.

However, it now also says that a vehicle driver should give way to a pedestrian or cyclist already crossing, or waiting to cross, the road you are turning into or out of. Also, it now states specifically that you must not cross the path of a cyclist going straight ahead when turning into or out of a junction or if changing lane or direction. It doesn’t say specifically that a driver must not cross the path of a motorcyclist going straight ahead. (Why not? Must remember to put that into the consultation response.) Maybe that does make some sort of sense if there is a cycle path on your left, but…

Elsewhere, it has been suggested that streets should be designed so that it is not necessary to cross cycle paths, but that is quite difficult. Even the best layouts can leave much to be desired and I’d prefer not to think about the worst layouts. Whoever thought it was a good idea to put the cycle path on the pavement and run it between the kerb and the queue at the bus stop? However, rules similar to these proposals have been in force in the Netherlands and other European countries for many years; that’s where they got the idea from.

Another addition to the Highway Code is the introduction of the Dutch reach. This is the idea that, when you open a car door, you should do so with the hand that’s furthest away from the door. This means that you have to turn your body so that you are more likely to see traffic approaching from behind.

While the authors would primarily have been considering cyclists, this could possibly benefit motorcyclists too. There is one thing in the Highway Code proposals which I will take some credit for. There is a sentence in it, quite near the beginning, which says: “None of this detracts from the responsibility of all road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders, to have regard for their own and other road users’ safety.”

That is only there because I suggested at a meeting with Living Streets that there should be something to remind readers of the Code that everyone should take some responsibility for their own safety. To my mind, it isn’t put strongly enough but the fact that it is there at all is something of an achievement! That said, this won’t stop me from asking for it to have greater prominence when I write our response to the consultation.

There are a number of things which must raise concerns for every road user. First, this is a huge change. It really warrants an enormous retraining exercise for all drivers. How many drivers have actually read the Highway Code since they took their driving test? I have just discovered that my own paper copy of the Highway Code is 20 years old, so it’s out of date and I doubt if I read it through even then. If it wasn’t for having to discuss previous changes as a consequence of representing the BMF, I doubt if I would be up to date with it at all. And never mind the drivers and motorcyclists, how many pedestrians and non-driving cyclists ever read the Highway Code at all?

Another thing is that it introduces some road design features which have only very recently been implemented. When I started reading this consultation, I came to the bit where it referred to ‘parallel crossings’ and went “Huh! Wozzat?”. I find that it’s a pedestrian crossing where there is also a cycle crossing so that cyclists can cross parallel to the pedestrians but separately. Never seen one so far in real life. I am given to understand that, when the new Highway Code is printed, there will be additional pictures.

In the longer term, I worry that pedestrians and cyclists will take less rather than more care for their own safety, assuming that if anything nasty happens to them it will be someone else’s fault. I don’t look forward to that. To be fair, the rules stating that pedestrians should look for traffic first before crossing the road are still there, but we know how much those get observed. That’s why I think the most important message to all road users is that each of them has a responsibility for their own safety.

A proportion of risky behaviour on their part is down to ignorance; pedestrians and cyclists who are not also drivers may have no training at all in vehicle behaviour. It never occurs to some people that the back wheels of that big truck do not follow the same path as the front wheels. That is actually mentioned in the Highway Code but, again, how many pedestrians read it? Or cyclists? The gold standard would be to get road safety covered in the national curriculum, but good luck with that one! Ideally, such tuition would include simulation experience of different vehicle types.

I remain unconvinced so far that collisions will be much reduced, certainly in the short term, while not all road users are working to the same set of rules.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of BMF Motorcycle Rider.