'It's millions of car drivers who need education': cyclists react to Highway Code changes

Jake Stewart says cycling in the UK is 'doomed' after seeing reaction to Highway Code update

Cycling in London
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Changes to the Highway Code have been welcomed by many cyclists, but there are concerns over how the update has been and will be communicated.

The new rules will come in from Saturday in England, Scotland and Wales. The headline change is a new "Hierarchy of Road Users", which places pedestrians at the top, as the most vulnerable, followed by cyclists, with motorists at the bottom.

While some have said that the update is a "great move", others warn that it will take a "concerted effort" to educate road users. The prime minister has previously said that he wants to welcome a "golden age" of cycling.

In other updates to the code, cyclists are told to "be considerate of the needs of other road users when riding in groups". It reads: "You can ride two abreast and it can be safer to do so, particularly in larger groups or when accompanying children or less experienced riders. Be aware of drivers behind you and allow them to overtake (for example, by moving into single file or stopping) when you feel it is safe to let them do so."

Nick Chamberlain, British Cycling's policy manager, said the insertion of the word “stopping” into the rule very late in the process was “deeply frustrating” adding, “I know Cycling UK feel that way as well.”

This has led some to fear for the impact of the new rules on club runs, where groups are often found riding two-abreast.

Cyclists are encouraged to ride in the centre of the lane "on narrow sections of road, on quiet roads or streets, at road junctions and in slower-moving traffic". 

The addition of this advice on using "primary position" has caused controversy. Neil Greig, the director of policy and research at IAM RoadSmart, a road safety charity, telling The Sunday Times: "A lot of drivers are going to think that somebody cycling in the middle of the lane in front of them is doing it to deliberately slow them down. That leads to conflict and road rage and inappropriate overtaking."

Drivers are told: "It can be safer for groups of cyclists to ride two abreast in these situations. Allow them to do so for their own safety, to ensure they can see and be seen. Cyclists are also advised to ride at least a door’s width or 1 metre from parked cars for their own safety."

Riders are told to "exercise their judgement" on their use of cycle lanes, and are not "obliged" to use them. On overtaking, drivers are advised: "Leave at least 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists at speeds of up to 30mph, and give them more space when overtaking at higher speeds."

The criticism of the new changes on social media led Groupama-FDJ's Jake Stewart to tweet that "cycling in the UK is doomed".

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Some cyclists were pleased with the changes. Helen Chelmicka said that it was "high time" the code was updated. She explained: "Too many cars don't regard cyclists as part of the traffic. The updates are great too because it validates cycling as a means of transport.

"It's validating cycling as a means of transport and cyclists as an important part of the traffic. It also helps with things that cyclists encounter that cars may not be aware of, for example potholes."

Reacting to the proposals on the Cycling Weekly Facebook page, many of our readers suggested that it was communication that was the problem.

James Haynes wrote: "It's great for cyclists but it's millions of car drivers who need the education. Where do they find out about the new changes? As not knowing just means road users will continue to abuse cyclists."

This is something echoed by Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK's head of campaigns. He said that it was "frustrating" to see how how the new Highway Code was being announced and reported.

"The changes to the Highway Code will happen overnight, so it is frustrating official communications will come only after their introduction," Dollimore said. "That helps no-one – neither the walkers and cyclists the rules are meant to protect, nor the drivers who are somehow meant to telepathically know about them – it is why we’re seeing so much erroneous reporting right now.

"While Government has promised to communicate these changes, a big concern has to be about the future duration of the awareness campaign. These are fundamental changes about the way we use our roads, it’s essential we have a long-term well-funded public awareness campaign to make that change happen.”

Barry Jones warned: "It will take a concerted effort via information films on TV radio and social media plus a number of motorists getting done before the changes filter down. 

"In the meantime cyclists in particular will feel the wrath of many 'entitled' drivers unable to travel at twice the speed limit for a few seconds when on one of their less than 1 mile car journeys...."

Alex Thompson suggested that cyclists already operate common sense on safety, no matter what the Highway Code says.

"The majority of cyclists know what is and isn't safe, and all know that being as far left as possible isn't safe," He explained. "It encourages dangerous driving and leads to serious injury or death. I think the majority of drivers are patient and welcoming, and I rarely get passed in a dangerous manner. Mind one dangerous pass is one too many, and that driver is the reason people aren't cycling more."

"I think encouraging cyclists to cycle in the centre of their lane where necessary... reduces hazards by eliminating the incentive for them to squeeze past and therefore is a good thing. 

"However, elimination is the goal here, robust cycling infrastructure is required. If cycling lanes were good and well maintained, the risk is eliminated. No cyclist wants to be in the road getting beeped at and shouted at. We just want to get to work and then home to our families."

Others were a lot more pessimistic on the impact of the Highway Code changes. Anna Verrion wrote: "I don’t think the non-cyclist driver mentality will actually change much. I just hope that it may make for more robust prosecutions. It’s saddens me how many stories I’ve read where a cyclist has been killed and the driver essentially gets off scot-free. 

"I’ve actually given up riding on the road as I was fed up with near misses. My life means nothing to someone in a vehicle it seems."

Phil Cook wrote that it would make no difference: "Until such time as the police and courts prosecute dangerous drivers, there is no point talking about protecting vulnerable road users, changing laws or updating the Highway Code."

It appears it will take more than just changes to the rules to usher in this "golden age of cycling" that Boris Johnson promised.

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