The Highway Code is changing: the ‘Hierarchy of Road Users’ and what it means | CAR Magazine

The Highway Code is changing: the ‘Hierarchy of Road Users’ and what it means

Published: 19 January 2022 Updated: 08 March 2022

► Changes to Highway Code
► Creates Hierarchy of Road Users
► CAR explains what this means

Come the 29th January, the Highway Code changes. It aims to ‘create a hierarchy of road users’. But what does that mean? What does a road user hierarchy look like? And why might it be necessary to introduce it at this time?

Rule H1 of the newly updated Highway Code says ‘Those in charge of vehicles that can cause the greatest harm in the event of a collision bear the greatest responsibility to take care and reduce the danger they pose to others.’

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The Code then goes on to say ‘The objective of the hierarchy is not to give priority to pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders in every situation, but rather to ensure a more mutually respectful and considerate culture of safe and effective road use that benefits all users’.

Aiming to create a more transparent understanding for everyone using the UK roads, the text is pretty clear about not wanting to create an inflexible set of rules where one type of road user usurps another. However, the reality is that HGV drivers sit at the top of the road-liability food chain, pedestrians at the bottom; with children and the elderly considered the most at risk, and least liable.

The new rules set out in the updated Code mean drivers don’t have priority at junctions anymore. They must give way to anyone waiting or in the process of crossing the road. 

Where once it was simply guidance to ask motorists and cyclists to stop if there were pedestrians crossing using a zebra crossing, it is now a legal requirement to stop if anyone is waiting. 

To offer cyclists more protection on the road, there’s a prescriptive requirement by drivers to treat cyclists as though they were motor cars, giving them more room. 

Cyclists are now encouraged to ride where they feel safest and if that means the middle of the road, to be more visible, that is acceptable. Nevertheless, there is an explicit request for cyclists to give due consideration to motorists at junctions and on narrower stretches of road where overtaking opportunities are limited.

What does a road user hierarchy look like?

Generally speaking, vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders will have right of way. 

There’ll be an expectation that all motorists, regardless of the size of the vehicle, will give greater space, time and consideration to these vulnerable road users, paying particular attention where the elderly and children are involved. Junctions, road crossings and traffic lights are the hotspot areas that road users need to be most aware of. 

When it comes to the hierarchy between vehicles, motorbike riders are considered more vulnerable than passenger cars and van drivers. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the responsibility to mitigate danger.

So how will the hierarchy of road users work in practical terms?

In order to best understand how the road user hierarchy works in practical terms, it’s worth considering a few hypothetical situations. 

Scenario 1

A cyclist is approaching a red light, intending to turn left, they have undertaken the HGV on the inside as the lorry slows. The lorry is also looking to turn left. Despite the HGV driver having a blind spot, and audio technology to advise other road users that the vehicle intends to turn left, the driver will be expected to hang back to allow all cyclists to clear the road before moving off. In the event of an accident, the HGV is in a position to do the greatest harm, and therefore, with the rules applied broadly, liability will almost certainly lie with the HGV driver.

Scenario 2

A motor car has to make a right hand turn at the lights ahead. In the flow of oncoming traffic is a cyclist, with the car behind them unable to overtake. In this scenario, the car behind will have to continue to hang back. Meanwhile the vehicle waiting to turn right will need to wait until the cyclist has passed and there is a safe gap before attempting to make the turn. It is no longer acceptable to cut up cyclists and in the event of a car turning right, where a cyclist is hit, the car will be automatically liable since it would be deemed to be able to do the ‘greatest harm’.

Scenario 3

A motorcyclist is pulling out of a junction and an oncoming vehicle does not stop in time and collides with the motorcyclist. In this instance, the Code has always said a road user joining a more major road from a minor road must ensure there is an adequate gap—the traffic on the major road has right of way. However, if the vehicle on the major road maims the more vulnerable road user, depending on the circumstances of the situation, the driver of the vehicle could be held liable for the collision.

What does it mean for me?

There is no doubt that the 2022 updates to the Highway Code significantly change the way we ought to think about how we use our roads. Research suggests that not enough road users are even aware these changes are coming into effect and there’s only a matter of days before they take effect.

The changes being applied in most cases are the ‘common sense’ approach, with the vast majority of drivers already taking their time and being patient to avoid causing accident or injury to other road users. However, with cases of distracted driving and renegade cyclists causing fatalities and making the headlines, there’s clearly a need to clarify who is responsible for what. 

Among the updates, the local authorities are going to be given more power to fine people making illegal driving manouevres, such as doing a U-turn in a prohibited area, ignoring a right light or entering a box junction without a clear exit. Being caught on fixed CCTV could land you with a £70 fine through the post. 

While there will be a grace period of a couple of years, particularly for the traffic penalties, so everyone can become familiar with the changes, the rules will apply effective immediately for any collisions or incidents that take place. This will leave the courts to help clarify any areas of confusion. 

On a positive note, autonomous emergency braking systems (AEB) is mandatory in the European Union on all cars build from mid-2022. This regulation will mean other markets will get the safety technology by default. A 2015 study concluded that AEB could mitigate collisions and reduce crashes by up to 38%. Combined with other safety technology, such as Blind Spot Detection, fewer incidents should go some way towards the hugely ambitious Vision Zero targets steering many car manufacturers, which are aiming for zero preventable accidents on our roads. 

In the longer-term future, as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) evolve into more autonomously driven journeys in vehicles, setting up this hierarchy in our culture now helps inform car makers about the levels of prioritisation for the car’s systems making its own decisions when in control. 

By Cat Dow