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Back to school: Proposed changes to the Highway Code and considering pedestrians and cyclists outside of schools and nurseries

by Ruth Johnson, serious injury at Irwin Mitchell

I regularly do the school and nursery pick ups . I often see near misses outside of school and nursery between pedestrians, cars and bikes. A combination of people walking out into the road, cars not stopping to allow people to cross and car doors opening almost into the path of cyclists got me thinking about the potential impact of the proposed changes to the Highway Code might bring.

The Highway Code

The code sets out information, advice, guides and mandatory rules for road users in the UK.  The code currently treats parents and children walking to school and drivers, both of cars and large lorries, as all being equally responsible for their own or other people’s safety. The proposed changes look to redress that balance.

Many of the rules in the Code are legal requirements, and if you disobey these rules you are committing a criminal offence. You may be fined, given penalty points on your licence or be disqualified from driving. In the most serious cases you may be sent to prison.

Although failure to comply with the other rules of the Code will not, in itself, cause a person to be prosecuted, The Highway Code may be used in evidence in any court proceedings under the Traffic Acts to establish liability. This includes rules which use advisory wording.

The proposed changes to the code 

The Department for Transport has recently announced an intention to update the Highway Code, with a view to protecting vulnerable road users. The changes include creating a hierarchy of road users. 

This is an interesting development and one which is designed to give the most vulnerable road users greater protection. My colleagues David Withers and Peter Lorence discussed these changes recently: Proposed changes to the Highway Code, David Withers

There are three main changes that the Department of Transport summarizes as being proposed through this consultation:

  • Introducing a hierarchy of road users which ensures that those road users who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they may pose to others

  • Clarifying existing rules on pedestrian priority on pavements and that drivers and riders should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road

  • Establishing 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

Vulnerable road users

Vulnerable road users would by definition include the pedestrians and cyclists that I see outside of the school. One of the proposed changes would mean that for pedestrians car drivers should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross into a road in which they are turning, cars should give way on a zebra and parallel crossing.

In relation to cyclists, the change that interested me the most was that in relation to stationary vehicles and opening car doors within the current waiting and parking section of the Highway Code. The proposed change introduces a new technique commonly known as the ‘Dutch Reach’. This advises that road users should open the door of their vehicle with the hand on the opposite side to the door they are opening, which naturally causes the person to twist their body making it easy to look over their shoulder and check for other road users. 

I have seen car doors open without warning and open and close quickly when a cyclist is spotted at the last minute. I think this proposed change is so welcome bearing in mind the amount of cyclists on the road.

How will these changes be communicated to all so people are aware of their obligations ?

However, the effectiveness of these proposed changes will depend on all road users being educated in the changes. Without such for example, the proposed priority for pedestrians over cars waiting to cross the road, may result in people being placed in danger if car drivers are not aware they need to give way and are anticipating such, which could be seen quite profoundly in congested settings outside of schools and nurseries.

I wonder whether, just considering in the context of the above, there will be campaigns within school settings as well as within the media generally to raise awareness and how the changes, if implemented, will be communicated so all are aware and clear of them?

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in helping people following road accidents at our dedicated serious injury section.

However, the effectiveness of these proposed changes will depend on all road users being educated in the changes.”