14 November, 2022
Being able to share the road in a considerate manner is one of the most important parts of being a driver. We all have a responsibility to look out for each other, whether that’s checking for motorbikes in cities or horses on country lanes.
In order to do this, every driver learns about The Highway Code when they’re taking their first driving lessons. Whilst it might be fresh in your mind as a new driver, after a while it can be hard to recall who should be doing what.
There’s also occasional updates to the rules. In this guide, we help you understand what’s changed in the Highway Code recently, what you should be doing as a driver, and what you should do if something goes wrong.
The Highway Code is a government guide to the rules of the road, and is written by the Department for Transport. It aims to create a clear system for anyone using the road in the UK, whether they’re walking or driving, and keep everything running safely and smoothly.
Whilst it’s not obligatory to physically have a copy, making sure to read it and be clear on the key components can mean that all road users can co-exist safely and share the road.
The government updated The Highway Code on the 29th January 2022, following a public consultation in 2020 from 20,000 people about how they use the road. The resulting review was raised in order to try and make things safer for cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders, and was looked at by the government in 2021.
There are multiple changes to the wording of The Highway Code, in order to make things clearer for road users. But there are eight main update categories that most people will find relevant. The sections are:
The new rules are there to try and improve road safety, especially for vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. They work in conjunction with local initiatives that are area specific, such as London’s ‘Vision Zero’ plan. The Mayor of London has pledged to ensure that no one will be killed by a London bus by 2030, and for all deaths and serious injuries that occur as a result of road traffic to be eliminated by 2041. He is aiming to do this through improving junction design, lowering speed limits, and creating safer streets. By aligning The Highway Code with other road safety initiatives, it creates a shared goal of a better, safer experience for all.
There are stiff penalties to pay for breaking the rules. As well as making the road an unsafe environment for all, you could also face a penalty fine and points on your driving licence. In serious cases, disobeying the rules can mean that you are disqualified from driving, or even sent to prison. For example, careless and inconsiderate driving can be granted an unlimited fine or get you disqualified from driving, whilst dangerous driving can land you in prison for two years.
In this guide, we’ll break down the main rules for drivers interacting with cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders, as well as looking at what the recent changes mean for these groups, so that you can stay safe and legal on the roads.
The term ‘hierarchy of road users’ is a new addition to The Highway Code. It was created to prioritise people who are most at risk if an accident were to happen, and so pedestrians are classed as the most vulnerable. Within that category, there is added vulnerability given to children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. The full hierarchy is as follows:
Of course, this hierarchy does not mean that pedestrians no longer need to check before they cross the road, or can behave irresponsibly. Instead, it’s designed to help prevent accidents occurring as a result of confusion around who has priority. There are three sub-rules, called H rules, which support this hierarchy.
The first rule states that everyone has to take responsibility for sharing the road, but drivers have the greatest responsibility, as they could potentially cause the most harm. Drivers are required to take extra care, and make sure that they’re checking around them before making a manoeuvre, and not driving in a way that causes danger to others.
After drivers, cyclists, horse riders and drivers of horse-drawn vehicles also need to take care when passing pedestrians.
This rule also encourages road users to remember that not all disabilities are obvious – someone could be deaf without it being immediately apparent, for example. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we are driving with care and are basing our decisions on the actual actions of others, rather than what we expect them to do. Making sure that pedestrians have seen you or heard you coming will reduce the likelihood of an accident occurring.
Accidents can often occur when drivers, cyclists or other non-pedestrians are turning into, or out of a road. There is a lot to check, especially in a vehicle when you also need to remember to use your indicators, and are perhaps conscious of pulling away smoothly.
This rule reminds drivers that they should give way to pedestrians who are looking to use a zebra or parallel crossing, or who are crossing at a junction. The pedestrian doesn’t have to have started to cross – if they’re clearly waiting, you should stop to see if they want to cross. If they have stepped out onto the crossing, you must stop and let them cross.
Rule three is primarily for drivers and motorcyclists, and states that drivers should not cut across other road users at a junction or when changing lanes. If there is a cyclist next to you, don’t speed up to get in front of them and then turn, as doing so will cause them to brake sharply and could cause an accident.
This is also important when it comes to horse riders, as not only could you hit the horse and rider, but the horse could also spook and throw off the person riding.
Drivers often share the road with cyclists, unless they primarily do motorway driving. From those out for a leisure ride along country roads, to commuters zipping across the city, there are plenty of moments where cars and bikes come alongside each other.
In the UK, it can be hard for drivers to safely overtake cyclists when they want to. Only certain locations have dedicated bike lanes, usually on inner-city routes, meaning that road positioning is down to the cyclist and driver to manage. It can be frustrating to find yourself stuck behind a bike when you’re in a rush or someone else is getting annoyed behind you, but it’s important to stay calm.
Overtaking in an unsafe manner can have disastrous consequences, with 141 cyclist fatalities on British roads, according to the government's latest data set, released in 2020. This is a rise from previous years, as the popularity of cycling has increased as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown. Furthermore, 4,215 people were seriously injured, and 11,938 were slightly injured (according to 2020 data). This just goes to show how important it is to pay attention on the road, to minimise accidents wherever possible.
The updated Highway Code rules are designed to help reduce the amount of accidents between drivers and vulnerable road users, including cyclists. In particular, drivers should note the following changes:
Drivers can play a vital role in making the road a safe place for cyclists. As well as taking care when following behind bikes, you can also take extra precautions. Make sure to check before pulling out, especially in your blind spot, and use your indicators correctly so that the cyclist can correctly understand where you are moving to. If you need to suddenly change your signal, you should assume the cyclist has not noticed your change of direction unless you explicitly make eye contact with them – after all, they don’t have mirrors to check.
There are also some things you can do when you’re stationary. Avoid parking in bike lanes, even if you’re just popping into a shop or postbox, for example. This can force the cyclist to move into the road when travelling at speed, and can be especially difficult for cyclists who use cleats to keep their feet in the pedals as it might not leave them enough time to do this safely.
You should also take care when opening your car door, and ask your passengers to check too. Even on quiet residential roads, you should avoid leaving your car door open for longer than you need to.
The government statistics are clear: pedestrians are at the highest risk of accidents on the road, after car drivers. There were 346 pedestrians killed by cars in 2020, which accounted for 24% of total fatalities on the road in Britain. 68% of these were due to a collision with a car.
Accidents can occur in multiple places on the road and tend to occur as a result of a driver not paying attention, or rushing. In some places, accidents occur as a result of the pedestrian not behaving in a safe manner, like not using a designated crossing or walking in the road. By all taking care and responsibility, we can hopefully reduce deaths on the road for all groups, but especially pedestrians.
The new rules lay out clearly that pedestrians have priority, both in the hierarchy of road users, and in the guidance around people crossing the road at junctions. Cars should make sure to give way to pedestrians waiting to cross, regardless of whether there is a marked zebra crossing.
If someone has started to cross the road, then cars turning into the road should also wait and allow them to cross safely, so it’s more important than ever to check before you make a manoeuvre. As always, you should ensure that you stop at all zebra or parallel crossings and allow pedestrians to cross, rather than them having to wait for a gap in the traffic.
As well as the updated guidance, there has always been provision for pedestrians in The Highway Code. As a driver, you should take due care and look out for suddenly appearing pedestrians around parked cars and services such as ice cream vans. Whilst most ice cream van drivers will have a service window that opens onto the pavement side, children can easily get excited and appear in the road unexpectedly.
Similarly, pedestrians can come into the path of cars when getting in and out of vehicles. The updated Highway Code actually recommends a technique called the ‘Dutch Reach’ for drivers leaving vehicles, where they use their opposite hand to open the door, in order to force them to turn and look behind them. So, if you’re sitting on the right side of the car, you should use your left hand to reach over and open the door next to you.
If you come across pedestrians in the road – for example, hiking in a country lane – make sure to pass by them widely and slowly. Do not assume that they can step onto a verge to allow you to use the full width of the road to pass.
Whilst not as common as cyclists, you’ll still often see horses on UK roads, especially in the countryside. Driving in a safe and considerate manner means that you’re less likely to spook a horse, and thus reduce the risk to both the animal and rider.
You’ll find that many horse riders wear reflective vests and perhaps have reflective wrappings on their horse’s legs or tail. Their vests may also say ‘please pass wide and slow’. All of this is to remind you, as a driver, that you should not squeeze horse riders into the side of the road, make excess noise, or pass closely or at speed.
Even with adequate training or exposure, horses can still spook, and so should be treated with care. Riders have a responsibility to make sure that their horses are calm enough to be ridden out, but at some point they will have to take a horse on the road for the first time. They may choose a quiet country road on purpose, so speeding noisy drivers are an unexpected hazard.
When overtaking, drivers should make sure to leave at least two metres between their vehicle and horses or horse-drawn vehicles, and should pass at under 10 miles per hour. In addition, people with horses can remain in the left-hand lane of the roundabout, even if they intend to go around the roundabout. Drivers should assume that horse riders are continuing on until the rider signals otherwise, so that they don’t end up cutting across them.
When you come across a horse on the road, you should slow down to a crawling pace and stay a good distance behind the horse and rider. If you can, wait for the rider to give some indication that they’ve seen or heard you – drivers of electric vehicles may struggle with this, but usually the rider can hear or sense the traffic behind them.
Ideally, wait for the rider to signal to you that they’re happy for you to pass. They may not be able to take their hands off the reins to wave you past, so look out for smaller hand signals or a nod. If they don’t signal, then you can assess the situation, and check that there is enough room. Slowly and carefully start to pull around the horse and rider, taking care not to make excess noise, and pay attention in case the rider signals for you to stop. If you know a wider section of road is coming up shortly, it may be better to wait until this point to overtake.
You should be prepared for things to change at the last minute, as horses can spook unexpectedly. Keep a slow speed until you’re away from the horse. Many horse riders won’t signal to you to say thank you, but this is likely because they are concentrating on keeping control of their horse or soothing them. If you see another car speeding towards you, signal to them to slow down if it is safe to do so.
Accidents happen, even for experienced drivers and road users. Cyclists come across an unexpected obstacle, pedestrians step out into the road without looking, horses spook – it’s sometimes hard to predict what will happen.
However, what you can do is to make sure that you follow correct procedures for any accident, help anyone else involved, and protect yourself so that you’ll be able to get back on the road again soon.
If another car was involved, then you’ll need to note down their registration number and the insurance details of the driver, the time and the date, as well as the driver’s contact details. If the other driver isn’t the registered owner of the car, then you should also make sure to get the contact details of the registered keeper for your insurance.
Having a good car insurance policy protects you in this exact situation, so make sure to keep all your paperwork in a safe place and choose a good provider so that you’re covered. You’ll need to report the accident to your car insurance provider, regardless of whether or not you want to make a claim.
Taking photos will help support any claims that you do need to make, or claims that are made against you. Your provider can advise you on next steps following an accident – it’s important to follow their instructions so that you don’t negatively affect any claims.
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