Controversial changes to the Highway Code have come into force in the UK, giving greater priority to pedestrians and cyclists. The new rules were introduced on January 29, intended to give faster or heavier modes of transport the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they may pose on the road.

Key to the changes is a new hierarchy of road users, which places the most vulnerable – pedestrians – at the top, then has car and HGV drivers at the bottom, with cyclists and horse riders in the middle. The idea is to give those who can do the most damage greater responsibility, although the Highway Code stresses that all road users should “understand their responsibility for the safety of others”.

As always with the Highway Code, some of the rules laid out represent guidance for road users and these are denoted by the use of the word ‘should’. On the other hand, some parts are legally binding and failure to follow these rules (which feature the word ‘must’) could result in prosecution.

Cyclist in London

For the most part, the changes to the Highway Code are advisory, and the Department for Transport (DfT) has confirmed “non-compliance will not result in a fine”. However, there is a legally binding rule that says motorists must give way to pedestrians on zebra crossings, and should give way to pedestrians waiting to use such a crossing. The guidance also suggests drivers should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross at junctions.

Other new guidance includes rules for cyclists, which encourage them to ride in the centre of the lane, rather than in the left-hand side of the lane, in limited situations. On quieter roads, in slower-moving traffic and at the approach to junctions, they are encouraged to ride more centrally in order to make themselves as clearly visible as possible. Cyclists are also reminded they can ride two abreast when in a group, but they “must be aware of drivers behind them and allow them to overtake”.

Angry cyclist swerves to avoid opening car door on city street

Drivers and their passengers, meanwhile, are encouraged to use the ‘Dutch reach’ method of opening the door. This involves opening the door with the opposite hand (so drivers would open the door with their left hand), which encourages drivers and passengers to look over their shoulders to limit the chances of hitting a pedestrian or cyclist.

“I’m proud to say we have some of the safest roads in the world, but I’m determined to make them safer still for everyone,” said Roads Minister Baroness Vere. “These updates to The Highway Code will do just that by bringing the rules into the 21st century, encouraging people to respect and consider the needs of those around them, and ensuring all road-users know the rules of the road.”

Morning traffic on Whitehall road in the Central London

After receiving criticism for the perceived lack of communication about these changes, the government has confirmed it will launch a new Think! public information campaign to make drivers aware of the changes. The campaign is backed by over £500,000 in funding, and will run across radio and social media channels, with further campaign activity to follow later in the summer.

The RAC’s head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, said it was crucial that drivers are aware of the changes in order for them to work.

“These changes to the Highway Code are substantial, so it’s vitally important they are communicated clearly,” he said. “In theory, they should make our roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians, but unless everyone is aware of them, there’s a risk of angry clashes and, worse still, unnecessary collisions. Nobody wants to be on the right side of the Highway Code changes but in the back of an ambulance because of confusion on the part of a driver or any other road user. It’s vitally important that drivers now go online to check what’s changed.”