Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Highway Code Isn't Fit For Purpose

What is the point of the Highway Code? It seems to me that the only people who read it are those who want to point out how people are wrong in an argument about some obscure detail to win an argument.

OK, so I have been known to use it the same way, but I've not read it from cover to cover since I passed my driving test in 1991 - even for this blog, I haven't read it from cover to cover because it's just a pointless waste of time.

The main problem with the Highway Code is not the Highway Code (HC) itself - the issue is how we design and manage the streets and how risk is apportioned. In introducing the HC, the Government suggests:

"The most vulnerable road users are pedestrians, particularly children, older or disabled people, cyclists, motorcyclists and horse riders. It is important that all road users are aware of the Code and are considerate towards each other. This applies to pedestrians as much as to drivers and riders."

This is the heart of the problem because while on the face of it everyone knowing the "rules" might seem a good idea, we perhaps end up having the wrong impression that everyone has an equal responsibility which patently isn't matched by the capacity to inflict harm by whichever mode someone is using at the time.

For example, take Rule 170;

Take extra care at junctions. You should

  • watch out for cyclists, motorcyclists, powered wheelchairs/mobility scooters and pedestrians as they are not always easy to see. Be aware that they may not have seen or heard you if you are approaching from behind
  • watch out for pedestrians crossing a road into which you are turning. If they have started to cross they have priority, so give way
  • watch out for long vehicles which may be turning at a junction ahead; they may have to use the whole width of the road to make the turn (see Rule 221)
  • watch out for horse riders who may take a different line on the road from that which you would expect
  • not assume, when waiting at a junction, that a vehicle coming from the right and signalling left will actually turn. Wait and make sure
  • look all around before emerging. Do not cross or join a road until there is a gap large enough for you to do so safely.

The way in which the the HC is written, the word "should" is essentially guidance whereas "must" relates to the legislation quoted in the text. Rule 170 is guidance and I am not entirely sure anyone is going to be shouting it as they scatter from the mobile phone wielding SUV driver who hasn't seen them crossing. Oh, and the photo with Rule 170 doesn't even have decent dropped kerbs to help everyone to cross.

Rule 170 does help demonstrate how out of date the HC is and how in fact road design leaves us in the unsatisfactory position of having to guide those who could inflict the greater harm by asking them not to clobber other people. Why do we need to have a rule for this? Shouldn't the street design explain what is required? Should we even need to explain that driving into people is a bad thing?

Compare the Rule 170 photo with this one;


The layout of the street explains what is required of those turning into and out of the side road. How about this example;


For a driver emerging from the side road, the continuous footway and cycle track makes it clear that people walking and cycling have priority. There is no legal requirement for the give way road markings, but they are useful in reinforcing what is expected.

How about Rule 63;

"Cycle Lanes. These are marked by a white line (which may be broken) along the carriageway (see Rule 140). When using a cycle lane, keep within the lane when practicable. When leaving a cycle lane check before pulling out that it is safe to do so and signal your intention clearly to other road users. Use of cycle lanes is not compulsory and will depend on your experience and skills, but they can make your journey safer."


It's guidance and actually quite meaningless when you read it a couple of times - "experience and skills"; does that mean they are aimed at people with lots of both, or little of both? In my photo above, I'd argue that to even get to the cycle lane pictured one would have to be fast and brave. Compare with this;


You don't need to guide people to use this cycle track over the road. The use of the cycle track isn't compulsory, but most people will choose to use it regardless of their experience and skills. If we built this routinely, then we wouldn't need to suggest people use it, they just would.

The HC is split into sections aimed at different groups. For pedestrians, there are no less than 35 rules. Rule 6 is a lesson in stating the bleeding obvious;

Motorways. Pedestrians MUST NOT be on motorways or slip roads except in an emergency (see Rule 271 and Rule 275).

The "must not" means there is legislation prohibiting people from walking along motorways. Do we really need to explain this? Despite the rule and the law, someone walking along a motorway is always a good news item for the local press, but unfortunately we rarely find out why because the person walking has often ended up dead.

I could spend hours analysing all of the rules I think are daft, but I won't because my point is either so few people read the HC as to render it pointless or if most people have read it, then they ignore it anyway.

The HC has over 300 rules and lots of other information (on the Government website) and so it's no wonder that people don't follow its teachings. Frankly, unless you're learning to drive, why would anyone else pick it up?

It might be useful to have some basic universal guidance for people using the highway. There is also a need to update some of the legislation - not because people require it to behave, but it's needed when something goes wrong. For example, if Rule 170 was replaced with a universal rule to give way when turning such as being lobbied for by British Cycling and then backed up in legislation then it would be explicit on what is expected; especially if this is reinforced by street design - a simple change to zebra crossing rules (in terms of the need for Belisha beacons and zig-zags) could help provide priority over side roads cheaply or where a continuous footway isn't needed;


The new Rule 170 would simply read;

"You MUST give way when turning."

The problem with the UK is we have allowed the design and use of our highways to become too complicated, therefore our guidance on how people use them has become too complicated. Time to overhaul the lot.

4 comments:

  1. In the third photo, the shark's teeth look to be backwards. I am used to the teeth pointing at people who have to give way.

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  2. No, this is correct - they are nothing to do with giving way - they indicate a ramp and always point uphill.
    Give way triangles are not filled

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  3. I think the idea of turning traffic giving way to all road users including cyclists and pedestrians would be an improvement on the current rule 170. I wonder also whether this should be extended to traffic joining the main road from the side road - setting the give way line back would require vehicles to give way to pedestrians crossing the road. Traffic would then be approaching the junction itself more slowly.

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