The announcement of a Highway Code review for walking and cycling is a forward step for active travel and road safety. It may not be the millions of pounds of investment needed, but it’s a start.
The Department for Transport (DfT) review will cover issues such as how to safely overtake cyclists, guidance on preventing car-dooring of cyclists, and giving pedestrians and cyclists the right of way at side roads.
The announcement follows a consultation earlier this year, whose responses were published on Thursday. It is part of a series of small but helpful cycle-friendly moves from the DfT including cargo bike subsidies, funding for Manchester’s ambitious cycling and walking plans, and support for police close passing operations and driver training.
Although the government does not go far enough in treating cycling and walking as a serious mode of mass transport, updating the rules that guide driver behaviour in this country, many of which are legal requirements, is a start.
Last year there were 18,321 cycling casualties, including 101 deaths, and 23,805 pedestrian casualties, including 470 deaths, on UK roads. 99% of pedestrian deaths involve a motorised vehicle.
Close passing is something many people who cycle on the UK’s roads regularly experience, and research shows near misses do put people off cycling. West Midlands Police, pioneers of the close pass initiative, found many drivers they pulled over had passed their driving test decades ago and were never taught how to safely overtake someone on a bike. Sometimes drivers failed to notice a cyclist even after passing within centimetres of the rider’s handlebars. At the moment, the Highway Code, which is, in theory, compulsory reading, says drivers should give cyclists as much room as they would a car, but to some drivers that may be just centimetres. West Midlands Police advocate giving cyclists 1.5m. Updating this part of the code will send a clearer message to drivers.
Dooring – opening a car door into the path of a cyclist – seriously injured 278 cyclists and killed five between 2011 and 2015. It’s already a criminal offence, punishable with a £1,000 fine, but updated guidance advocating the “Dutch reach” – using the opposite arm to open a car door – is welcome.
The review could also mean drivers would be told to give way to pedestrians and cyclists crossing at side roads, not just those already crossing the road, as at present. This would be especially helpful to those less able to run out of the way of fast turning vehicles.
All of the above issues are common sense, and in some cases already required by law, but a lack of awareness and cuts to roads policing mean they’re often ignored.
Over recent decades our streets have become dominated by the motor car, with the attitude increasingly being that anyone stepping on to or cycling on them without unwavering vigilance for hurtling traffic, no matter how badly piloted, does so at their own risk. The comments on some of the news stories about the review reinforce this theory in depressing volumes.
This attitude precipitates driving behaviour that scares people off cycling, and makes crossing the road far riskier than it needs to be, especially for the elderly or disabled. Modern thinking is starting to shift towards seeing our roads as public spaces for everyone, rather than just the minority rushing around in cars. The Highway Code could reflect this thinking and remind those with the greatest potential for harm of their responsibilities.
Even better would be for the government to invest in cycling infrastructure on a long-term, sustained and strategic basis, and for roads to be designed to actively discourage speeding. Planners should make room for protected cycling and walking routes to make them more attractive than driving.
Until the Treasury makes money available for active travel, instead of a misguided pursuit of ever greater motor traffic capacity – the very thing that’s killing us and choking our streets – the DfT is doing its best with what it has, and that’s a good start.