Road User Hierachy Called into Question

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Changes in the UK’s highway code introduced in late January 2022 have caused a great deal of controversy. At the time, many road users were incensed because they had no idea the changes were coming; an almost total lack of publicity had led to motorists breaking the law without realising it. Having had time to get used to the changes, however, one aspect of them which is still exercising drivers of four wheeled vehicles is their introduction of the road user hierarchy. In the vast majority of cases, motorists now have to take almost all of the responsibility for conflict situations with other road users who are further up the hierarchy; a situation most think deeply unfair.

Conflict Responsibility

The hierarchy applies to a number of specific situations, rather than all traffic at all times. Generally speaking, however, it was introduced to protect the most vulnerable people at times of potential conflict; i.e. those likely to come off worse in any given situation. For instance, a pedestrian crossing a road near a T junction must now be allowed to cross, meaning any vehicle turning into the junction has to wait. Pedestrians are also given priority on shared use paths, where cyclists and / or horse riders are also allowed on those paths. After pedestrians come horse riders; cyclists now have a responsibility to pass horses slowly and with plenty of space.

The highway code points out, however, that none of these changes give any road or path user the right to act irresponsibly. It is the duty of every traveller to give due consideration to others. On shared use paths, cyclists must make others aware of their presence, by ringing a bell or other sensible auditory device. They should also remember that people using paths may not have perfect hearing and / or vision, and may not be physically able to react quickly to an upcoming cyclist. In this sense, the new rules are the same as the old, as these provisos have always been in place.

Road Cyclists

While such changes may sound sensible when set out on paper, like the need to pass an annual MOT test, in reality there is one area of conflict which is publicised on an almost daily basis; that between cyclists and other road users. This situation is a long running saga, with some motoring groups accusing cyclists of “undertaking”, ignoring lights at crossings, and a number of other offences. To follow the public narrative, cyclists accuse motorists of trying to push them onto the pavement, opening doors as they ride past, and various other “dirty tricks”. Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact is that this state of conflict is well established in the media.

Against this background, then, the highway code changes are seen as favouring the road cyclist. The code does indeed make some stipulations; both to do with increased visibility for cyclists, and therefore less likelihood of accidents. On quiet roads and / or in slow moving traffic, cyclists are now advised to use the centre of their lane, rather than keeping to the left. Also, the code recommends riding two abreast, and therefore taking up the whole lane. In fact, this is a well established part of the highway code, if quite rarely used until now (especially in busy urban centres).

Passing Rule

Perhaps the biggest source of annoyance for motorists is a rule relating to overtaking cyclists. This must now be done with at least 1.5 metres of space in between the motor vehicle and the cyclist. If the latter is indeed using the middle of their lane, or there are two riding abreast, this means that the overtaking vehicle will usually be forced into the oncoming lane. If this is not possible, many motorists argue that they will be “stuck” behind cyclist/s without being able to do anything about it. This, of course, means travelling at cycling speed, which will inevitably cause more congestion.

Not surprisingly, pro-motoring publications are against these changes. Having conducted surveys of their readers, well over 90% of replies state the opinion that it is car, van, truck and motorcycle users should have priority on the UK’s roads. This is partly because these vehicles make up the vast majority of road use; but these polls also point out that cyclists do not pay road tax, do not need insurance, and their machines are not subject to the annual MOT test. For many motorists, then, the road user hierarchy is biased in the wrong direction.