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Impact of Highway Code changes on pedestrian safety: What does recent data reveal?

Two years ago, the UK government made various updates to the Highway Code with the aim of improving road safety for pedestrians. However, recent research conducted by the RAC suggests that these changes have not had the desired effect and that in fact, our roads are now less safe for pedestrians than they were beforehand.

Changes to the Highway Code

The changes made to the Highway Code in 2022 sought to improve road safety for more vulnerable individuals. A hierarchy of road users was created, to prioritise the safety of those most at risk in the event of a collision including pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists.

The relevant change for this article was the update to Rule 170, that drivers turning into or out of a junction needed to give way to pedestrians either crossing or waiting to cross the road. The preceding rule had been that drivers only needed to give way if the pedestrian had begun crossing, and not if they were waiting.

What the research shows

The UK Government recently released its annual road casualty statistics covering the year of 2023. Although the number of overall fatalities based on all road user groups has declined since 2022, the number of pedestrian fatalities has worryingly increased by 6%. 

There is a concern that drivers are simply unaware of the Highway Code updates to protect pedestrians. These are only effective if it they are widely known and understood. 

From personal experience, several times a week I walk through a busy city centre on my commute to work. There are various junctions to pass through, some without any crossing system. It's often the case that even if I'm waiting at such a junction to cross and drivers see me, they don't give way to let me do so. 

My experience is in line with RAC research published in 2024, in which 65% of pedestrians said that drivers rarely or never stop for them. While the intention behind the Highway Code changes was clear, perhaps more needs to be done to raise awareness and ensure compliance.

The other concern is that there has in fact been a negative impact on pedestrian safety as a result of the Highway Code changes. If, for example, in my experience I am aware of the update and expect a driver to give way for me to cross or whilst I am crossing, but a driver is unaware of the changes, that could cause confusion and lead to a dangerous situation. Interestingly, the research also shows that 31% of drivers think pedestrians face greater danger at junctions since the Code was updated.

Improvement measures

In a recent article reviewing the Government pedestrian fatality statistics, RAC have called on the Government to reintroduce road casualty reduction targets. These existed for England and Wales until 2010 when they were abolished by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. The road safety charity Brake included the introduction of road casualty reduction targets in one of their ‘Zero In’ campaign goals, which is based around eliminating deaths and serious injuries on our roads completely. 

The other of Brake’s campaign goals is for the Government to establish an independent road collision investigation branch. It was surprising to me to find out that these exist for railway, aviation and maritime collisions but there is no equivalent for the roads, which has far higher number of casualties and deaths. 

My work

As a serious injury solicitor, my work involves running claims for clients who have unfortunately been seriously injured in road traffic collisions, and these clients include pedestrians injured by other road users. 

The Highway Code, whilst not legislation and therefore not enforceable, is a code of good practice and something that can be taken into consideration whilst establishing liability in a civil claim for personal injuries, or a claim on behalf of the estate in the case of a fatality. 

Knowledge of the increased patient fatalities on our roads in 2023, despite the Highway Code updates, is a real concern and I'll certainly be taking action to raise awareness of the updates among drivers in an attempt to improve pedestrian safety and reduce avoidable injuries and fatalities.  

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families following road collisions at our dedicated road accident claims section.