Revolutionary Road?

Photo by Robert Ruggiero on Unsplash

Last weekend (more specifically Saturday 29 January 2022) saw a really significant overall of the UK’s Highway Code which means that pedestrians and cyclists will be given far greater protection.

I was originally going to entitle this Blog either Code of Silence or Code Unknown, purely on the grounds that the changes seem to have crept up without any real awareness on the part of the British public. The reason I say this is because I was listening to BBC Radio 2 during the week running up to the changes. Jeremy Vine, the host of the eponymous show, was discussing the impending reforms with a panel of interested parties. One of the guests, Leo Murray, from the climate charity Possible, basically remarked that the UK Government had been remiss in failing to publicise these important changes.

I have to admit that I had only become aware of these changes a few days previously when I happened to come across an article from a Scottish regional newspaper which had appeared on social media.

As a pedestrian, cyclist and motorist, I’m pretty glad that I did find out in time. I also have more than a passing interest in this area as someone who has been knocked off my bike twice in less than 18 months by motorists (who were both at fault). Drivers ,who don’t cycle or walk that much, often forget how vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists actually are.

The main outcome of the new rules is the creation of a hierarchy of road users where the most vulnerable individuals – pedestrians, followed by cyclists, and then horse riders will be given priority over motorists, buses and heavy goods vehicles.

This past week alone, I’ve had to make a conscious effort to slow down when turning my car left into junctions in order to give pedestrians priority. I also take greater care when I’m turning right into junctions or leaving roundabouts. I’m quite happy to do this because as an occasional pedestrian and, as a more regular cyclist, I understand that I will benefit from the changes to the Highway Code?

One of the features of the new Code – which I particularly support – is the right of cyclists to use the middle of the road in order to avoid potholes (and other debris), enjoy greater visibility and making it easier to turn right. There are also new rules about giving cyclists greater space when being overtaken by motorists.

Some driving commentators such as the former BBC presenter, Alan Douglas (speaking to Radio Clyde) , have expressed their misgivings about the new rules saying that they are great in theory, but less so in practice. We’ll just have to wait and see.

I do think, however, that this is a timely reminder to the (pure) motorist community ( i.e. those individuals absolutely wedded to the idea of the car as being the sole, legitimate form of road transport) that our highways are a shared space. I often enjoy debunking the old myth or chestnut when talking to (pure) motorists that cyclists do not pay vehicle excise duty. As a driver who also happens to be a cyclist, I do pay several hundred pounds a year in vehicle excise duty for the privilege of using the roads. As a matter of fact, a lot of motorists who drive electric cars and lower emissions vehicles are exempt from this form of taxation. In any case, the sum collected from vehicle excise is not used to pay for road building and maintenance. This comes from general taxation (see link to article below):

https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/pj-investigations/2477257/the-road-tax-debate-can-drivers-claim-to-own-the-roads/

When motorists use the term of abuse “bloody cyclists!”, they are actually falling into a false dichotomy or “them and us” mindset because many cyclists are in fact car drivers.

Heading towards stricter liability?

The new rules will certainly be the go to reference point in both criminal prosecutions for careless and dangerous driving (Sections 2 and 3 respectively of the Road Traffic Act 1988) and for civil claims in delict and tort involving personal injury and property damage.

Personally and professionally speaking, I’m more interested in the civil aspects of road accidents. In the second, more serious road accident that I was involved in, the driver was charged with careless driving (which was not contested) and probably received a fine and penalty points. I, on the other hand, was left with injuries – necessitating a lengthy course of physio – and a racing bike which had to be written off.

An out of court settlement with the driver’s insurance company eventually followed after my solicitors had raised the prospect of a civil claim. This outcome to the matter was much more satisfying for me than any action taken against the driver under the criminal law.

One area of controversy that surrounds the burden of proof in relation to delictual liability occurs in road traffic accidents involving pedal cyclists and motorists.

Currently, a cyclist who is injured in a road traffic accident must prove that the vehicle driver was at fault or to blame. Most European countries have reversed the burden of proof so that a motorist involved in a collision with a cyclist must prove that s/he was not to blame or at fault for the accident.

Only the United Kingdom, Cyprus, Malta, the Republic of Ireland and Romania operate a system whereby the cyclist must prove fault. This proposed reform, supported by many cycle organisations, has ignited passions and it remains to be seen whether it will find favour with British legislators.

Conclusion

Although the reforms to the Highway Code are certainly revolutionary in some respects, I would hesitate to say that we have arrived at a destination of strict liability in relation to road accidents. The changes do represent a new philosophy in road use whereby whoever you are you should always be thinking about those individuals who are more vulnerable than you.

A guide to the main changes brought in by the updated Highway Code can be viewed by clicking on the link below:

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-highway-code-8-changes-you-need-to-know-from-29-january-2022

Postscript

In April 2022, Neil Greig, Policy and Research Director at IAM Roadsmart, claimed that:

An alarming number of motorists are driving on British roads without awareness of key changes which fundamentally shift the dynamics of shared use.

This is a serious safety risk which could actually see the updated code causing more conflict on our roads rather than less.”

A survey carried out by Mr Greig’s organisation concluded that one in five drivers was not aware of the recent changes to the Highway Code. A large reason for this ignorance was the fact that the U.K. Government had failed to advertise adequately the changes to the Code. Apparently, a new information campaign to be carried out in the Spring will hopefully rectify this unfortunate situation.

A link to the IAM Roadsmart’s website can be found below:

https://www.iamroadsmart.com/media-policy/media-enquiries/news-details/2022/04/08/uncertainty-over-new-hierarchy-of-road-users-could-cause-more-conflict-on-our-busy-shared-streets

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 5 February & 9 April 2022

Published by

sjcrossan1

A legal blog by the author of Introductory Scots Law: Theory & Practice (3rd Edition: 2017; Hodder Gibson) Sean J. Crossan BA (Hons), LLB (Hons), MSc, TQFE I have been teaching law in Higher and Further Education for nearly 25 years. I also worked as an employment law consultant in a Glasgow law firm for over a decade. I am also a trade union representative and continue to make full use of my legal background. I am a graduate and postgraduate of the Universities of Dundee, London and Strathclyde. Please note that this Blog provides a general commentary about issues in Scots Law. It is not intended as a substitute for in-depth legal advice. If you have a specific legal problem, you should always consult a suitably qualified Scottish solicitor who will be able to provide you with the support that you require.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s