Let’s get a better Highway Code!

Yes, consultation is underway on changes to the Highway Code. Their aim is to increase protection for ‘vulnerable’ road users, that’s pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders (see GoBike Consultation Digest).

Why is this important? Here’s why:

The Highway Code matters because it shapes the culture on our roads, from how road users treat each other, to how we police road users.

The Guardian, 28 July 2020


Heavyweight organisations will be responding to the proposed changes, many of them more interested in keeping the status quo for those driving than making our streets safer everyone else.

This blog is a personal view on some of the proposed changes — and it will be the basis of GoBike’s response, depending on feedback from our members and readers (that’s you). The three key changes have been summarised like this:

  • Introducing a hierarchy of road users which ensures that those road users who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they may pose to others;
  • Clarifying existing rules on pedestrian priority on pavements. That drivers and riders should give-way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road;
  • Establishing guidance on safe passing distance and speeds when overtaking cyclists or horse riders, and ensuring that they have priority at junctions when travelling straight ahead.

(Make sure you’ve double read the last part of the third point…)

Everyone who’d like to see better conditions for cycling (that’s you, right?) can and should respond as an individual. If you haven’t got much time, email your support for these key changes. As always, the detailed story is more nuanced, but the intention of these changes is good for cycling and it will be better to have the changes than not to have them. We need lots of individual responses supporting the changes!

Email your support to:



  • You are responding as an individual,
  • What your primary way of getting around is,
  • If you are a driver supporting these changes, it may be helpful to state that.

Do it NOW! ( pretty please!)— the closing date is 27 October 2020, but get it done…

It is also possible to respond using an editable email prepared by CyclingUK, here.

If you’ve got more time there is an official response form (which is quite long) here. You’ll need to have considered the detailed proposals, and perhaps even had a look at parts of the existing Highway Code.

Moving on now to some of the details — as you are still reading (right?), there are a couple of important things to know before getting into how the changes are worded and (perhaps) how they might be made more clear and more effective.

First important thing — this isn’t a wholesale review of the Highway Code or the law around using the roads. It was set up as a review of specific parts affecting the safety of vulnerable road users. So suggesting a wholesale restructuring by this review isn’t going to work.

Second important thing — is so important, we will just quote straight from the Executive Summary:

The Highway Code is a collection of rules of two types:

  • MUST / MUST NOT rules relate to legislation and if you breach these rules you are committing an offence,
  • SHOULD / SHOULD NOT or DO / DO NOT rules are advisory and breach in itself is not an offence, but may be used in court when considering evidence in relation to driving / riding behaviour.

By my reading, this means that if a rule doesn’t include MUST / MUST NOT then breaking it is NOT an offence — it’s not the presence of SHOULD / SHOULD NOT or DO / DO NOT that makes a rule advisory, it’s the absence of MUST / MUST NOT.

The MUST / MUST NOT rules all include reference (in the online version) to the legislation that creates the offence. We can’t make something an offence (much as we might want to) by writing MUST into the Highway Code. The law has to come first, then the Highway Code can have a rule that MUST be obeyed. Though, somehow an anomaly was absent-mindedly created for parking in a mandatory cycle lane, but that’s a whole other story!

Perfectly clear then, something’s either a legal requirement or it’s no better than take-it-or-leave-it advice?  Well, up to a point.  As it says, breaching a SHOULD / SHOULD NOT (or equivalent) rule may not be an offence in itself, but it could be used in court in relation to driving or riding behaviour.  And as the Guardian article said, the Highway Code shapes the culture on our roads.

Before (finally) getting into some details, there’s another thing about the Highway Code, which is that it’s set out in sections addressed to different kinds of road users.  There are Rules for Pedestrians, Rules for Users of Powered Wheelchairs and Mobility Scooters, Rules for Cyclists, Rules for Motorcyclists, Rules for Drivers and Motorcyclists, and then there are General Rules, Rules for Using the Road, Rules for Driving in Adverse Conditions and more.  So words about a single situation can appear multiple times, often slightly differently.

The rest of this blog is about the specifics of proposed changes to the rules about junction priority for those cycling, rules about shared paths, and helmets.

Junction Priority

The statement from the summary that the proposals will ensure that those cycling will have priority at junctions when travelling straight ahead is a very big one — but digging into the details finds that things are disappointingly unclear.

Starting with a broad brush view, here is CyclingUK’s take on the changes around junction priority:

The person going straight ahead would have right of way over the person turning left. This should reduce ‘left hook’ collisions and make it easier to maintain cycle track priority at junctions.

Let’s take it for granted that CyclingUK’s interpretation of the changes is accurate (they were involved in the pre-consultation work, and they do this stuff for a living). So then we go looking for a rule that says this in the consultation document, but it turns out not to be that straightforward.

Turning at junctions is mentioned in seven separate places in the proposed changes (that I’ve found). The first mention is at the very beginning, in the rules to set out the new hierarchy of road users (road users who pose greater risks to others have a higher level of responsibility). These are to go before the old Rule 1, and are numbered H1 to H3.

The cyclists’ new protection is covered in Rule H3 (addressed to drivers and motorcyclists), which states:

You should not cut across cyclists going ahead when turning into or out of a junction or changing direction or lane, just as you would not turn across the path of another motor vehicle. This applies whether cyclists are using a cycle lane, a cycle track or riding ahead on the road and you should give way to them.

(Note that the Highway Code uses only the terms ‘cycle lane’ (painted on the road) and ‘cycle track’ (not on the road). It my not match the terminology used elsewhere, but it’s not going to be productive to get into that here.)


So far, so promising…

… but, what does it say in Rules for Cyclists? That’s covered in the amended Rule 76:

If you are going straight ahead at a junction, you have priority over traffic waiting to turn into or out of the side road…

There are three things to note about this pair of rules:

  • Rule H3 seems important because it’s right at the beginning, and it appears to provide a summary of the effect of the new hierarchy of road users. It only says to drivers is “You SHOULD not cut across cyclists…” — (Note that an example of a ‘should’ rule in the current Highway Code is, “You should drive slowly and carefully on streets where there are likely to be pedestrians, cyclists, and parked cars” (Rule 152)). The wording of Rule 76 for cyclists, “You have priority” is a more powerful statement than “drivers should give way to you”.
  • But the apparently stronger Rule 76 doesn’t include the confirmation that it applies “whether cyclists are using a cycle lane, a cycle track, or riding ahead on the road”.
  • And what’s this in Rule 76 about “waiting to turn”? It could be read that this means that cyclists only have priority if the turning traffic is already stopped, which isn’t what it says in Rule H3.

There are other rules that apply to turning drivers, and they’re no clearer. Take my word for it, or check my workings (please) by looking at Rules 140, 167, 170, 182, 183 and 211.  All of them include some guidance for drivers not to turn across cyclists going straight on, but none of them uses the words “cyclists have priority” and none of them includes the statement that this applies whether cyclists are using a cycle track or lane or the road.

For greatest clarity all these rules need to be explicit that cyclists going straight ahead on a cycle track, a cycle lane or the road have priority over turning traffic (without the “waiting” part) .

(Full Disclosure: the rules do often also include other statements that have more power than the ‘should’ ones I’ve quoted, but the point above stands.)

I feel the urge to apologise for this delving into the minutiae of which words are used, given that without that MUST it’s all ‘only’ advisory, but we all know that there are people who are more than willing to wield some context-free quote against people cycling.

Shared Paths

Starting with the new Rule H2, which includes this clause:

Cyclists should give-way to pedestrians on shared use cycle tracks…

Note — It can be inferred from later content (eg. Rule 13) that this refers to unsegregated shared cycle tracks.


WHAT? There are some pedestrians who would have us wobble and weave along at walking pace under that rule. If we say well, it’s only a ‘should’, note that that’s the same ‘should’ advising drivers to give way to cyclists going straight on at junctions.

But that doesn’t really seem to be what’s intended.  The introduction to the new H Rule section (on the hierarchy of road users) includes this statement:

The objective of the Hierarchy of Road Users 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.

And the relevant rule for pedestrians (Rule 13) includes this, referring to cycle tracks shared by pedestrians and cyclists without any segregation:

Cyclists should respect your safety (see Rule 62) but you should also take care not to obstruct or endanger them unnecessarily.

And Rule 62 (for cyclists) includes:

You should always take care when passing pedestrians … and allow them plenty of room.  Always be prepared to slow down and stop if necessary.

Rules 13 and 62 seem to be doing a good job of encapsulating the need for people to share the inconvenience as well as the path, whether they’re walking or cycling.

So the clause in Rule H2 needs to change to something like:

On shared cycle tracks pedestrians and cyclists should take care not to endanger, alarm or unnecessarily obstruct other users.

While we’re here, Rule 13 (for pedestrians) also needs these changes:

  • “…you should also take care not to obstruct or endanger them (cyclists) unnecessarily” needs to change to “…take care not to endanger or unnecessarily obstruct them” to avoid any suggestion that it can ever be necessary to endanger someone.
  • The advice about keeping dogs on a short lead on shared paths that appears in the section of Rules about Animals (Rule 56) needs to be repeated here.
  • Pedestrians should be advised that they will be better able to hear voice or bell warnings from cyclists if they remove their headphones.


Oh no, not helmets….  The last thing anyone wants is helmet wars within GoBike, so let’s assume we can agree with the statement included in the Executive Summary of the consultation document that wearing helmets and high-vis clothing should remain a matter of individual choice.

So what then is this (Rule 59) doing in the proposals?

You should wear a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, and is the correct size and securely fastened.  Evidence suggests that it will reduce your risk of sustaining a head injury in certain circumstances.

Again, that’s the same ‘should’ advising turning drivers to give way to cyclists going straight on.  Here’s the advice (in the same rule) on clothing:

Light-coloured or fluorescent clothing can help other road users to see you in daylight and poor light, while reflective clothing and/or accessories (belt, arm or ankle bands) can increase your visibility in the dark.

(In case you’re getting ready to be offended by wardrobe advice being offered to cyclists, note that the existing Highway Code does also include advice to drivers to wear appropriate shoes (Rule 97) and to pedestrians to make themselves visible in poor light (Rule 3).)

So there should be no problem in including advice on helmets this way:

Evidence suggests that in certain circumstances wearing a helmet will reduce your risk of sustaining a head injury.  The helmet should conform to current regulations, be the correct size and be securely fastened.

A few other things…

I’m not wild about the precise wording of new advice on passing distances, the information to drivers that people don’t have to cycle in single file, or to cyclists to allow drivers to pass if it’s safe, but this has gone on long enough.

Let us know if this is the kind of response from GoBike that you’ll support.

And please do make your own response as an individual, supporting the changes, in general or in particular.

Blog written by Brenda (member of GoBike) and blog edited by Thomas Cornwallis.