Skip to main content

Highway Code

Volume 818: debated on Monday 7 February 2022


Asked by

My Lords, following parliamentary approval, the Highway Code was revised on 29 January 2022 to include alterations to improve safety for cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders. Changes relating to the use of hand-held mobile phones in vehicles were laid before Parliament on 1 February. Further changes covering the use of self-driving vehicles are planned and will be laid before both Houses of Parliament later this year.

My Lords, would it not be a good idea to present all the changes to the Highway Code and consult on them in one go to prevent a piecemeal approach? Do I not have the expectation as a pedestrian to be able to walk safely along a pavement without the risk of being mown down by e-scooters? For what reason are e-scooters still excluded from the Highway Code? When do my noble friend and the department imagine that death and injury caused by cyclists and e-scooters will be put on the same basis as other motoring offences?

Many questions, to which I hope to give at least some response; I am grateful to my noble friend. If we could bring everything together and lay it before Parliament all at once, that would be marvellous, but the reality is that these things happen over a period of time. We do not want to delay certain elements that we can get out of the door. For example, noble Lords will know that we changed the Highway Code back in 2021, making some alterations for smart motorways to include red X stoppages. We have changed and will continue to change the Highway Code, because the situation on our roads is developing very quickly. My noble friend raised the issue of e-scooters which, as noble Lords know, are currently illegal except for the temporary trials. That is why they are not in the Highway Code.

Could the noble Baroness tell the House to what extent she thinks motorists understand the new Highway Code?

There has been a huge amount of coverage of the new Highway Code, for which we are extremely grateful, and there will continue to be coverage. But I am afraid there has been an awful lot of hot air as well, because the changes are actually not that significant. If, as a pedestrian, you start to cross the road, you already have priority; there has been no change in that regard. There was already guidance as to where cyclists should ride on the road; we are just clarifying what is reasonable and what is not. I am content that there is an awful lot of coverage at the moment. There will be more paid-for coverage by the department when we launch our campaign.

My Lords, it is reported that the Government are considering, as a so-called Brexit freedom, refusing to implement EU standards on better sight lines for buses and lorries so that they do not crush cyclists and pedestrians, and better braking for cars. Did taking back control mean more dangerous roads and less safe vehicles? This seems in direct contravention to the alleged purpose of the changes in the Highway Code.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising that matter. I think what she is talking about—although I suspect there are a few things muddled up there—is the EU safety package. Of course, that has not yet been mandated in the EU. Ministers are considering what we will do, and we will make the right decision for the safety of everybody on British roads. It has got nothing to do with Brexit or otherwise, frankly; we will be deciding for ourselves.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that smart motorways are one of great oxymorons of the present day?

I am grateful to my noble friend for raising one of my favourite topics. He will know that we have done an enormous amount of work on smart motorways. They are one of the most scrutinised types of roads in the country, perhaps even the world. We have committed that we will not continue to construct new smart motorways until we have all the safety data on those opened before 2020m, which will be in 2025. At that point, we will consider where we take smart motorways, but they are as safe, if not safer, in the vast majority of the metrics we use to look at safety on our roads.

My Lords, the Highway Code has already been amended with a great deal of criticism from those involved, I regret to comment. Are further amendments proposed?

Absolutely, and I am not sure I agree with my noble friend about criticism. The reality is that 21,000 people responded, for example, to the most recent change to the Highway Code and 70% of those self-identified as motorists. Between 68% and 96% of them agreed with the various elements that we put in place. I recognise that concerns have been raised. I am happy to address those concerns, but I do not think that this change is a poor one and, to answer my noble friend’s question, there will be more changes coming, as I have set out.

My Lords, can the Minister say why recommendations proposed by British Cycling to explain reasons for cycling two abreast and to protect the right to do it, which were rules 66, 154 and 213, were not adopted in full? Will this omission not lead to many drivers still questioning the right of people cycling side by side, which is safer for all road users? Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of British Cycling and Cycling UK to look at this again?

I am afraid that I will not commit to meet the cycling lobby again because there was an opportunity for all the stakeholders to input into the consultation. A correct balance has been met. The motoring organisations were there as well, and we are content with how we have resolved the situation around riding two abreast. We say that you can ride two abreast but be aware of drivers behind you and let them pass. It is about getting all people on our roads to act in a very safe and considerate manner.

My Lords, I am appalled that the Minister finds the criticism of the Highway Code and particularly how it has been introduced to be just hot air. I am very sorry that she is content; I believe she should be deeply dissatisfied. To dismiss the changes in the Highway Code as not significant is almost as if she has not read them. It is a very important modification. It requires road users to do things differently. It means that different people have different rights of way. The Minister should not shake her head—that is exactly what it requires. Where two road users both believe they have the right of way, it is potentially catastrophic.

The changes to the Highway Code are designed to make the roads safer but they are completely undermined by the lack of public awareness. The Department for Transport said it will begin launching an awareness campaign in February. Has this now been launched, and why did Minister not begin the campaign prior to the introduction?

My Lords, there is hot air and misinformation around this change to the Highway Code; I am not going to lie—that is absolutely true. There are also situations that have existed for decades—as I have pointed out, these are quite minor changes. Where the Highway Code says “should”, that does not mean that you are required to do anything, but, if it says “must”, you are required to it. There has always been a question, since the start of the Highway Code earlier in the last century, I believe, whereby different people will sometimes have to agree who will go first—that is just life.

The noble Lord will know that we have had quite a lot of coverage on non-paid-for communications channels, which is what we are focusing on at the moment. THINK!, a paid-for £500,000 campaign, will start very shortly, and we will continue over the summer, as various different modes tick up in their usage.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to make it safer for pedestrians? In particular, how are the Government going to enforce stopping at red lights for all road users, particularly cyclists?

I agree with my noble friend: some cyclists are absolutely outrageous when they look at red lights and assume that they are not compulsory. The Government are of course doing the roads policing review, which we will publish in due course. But the whole point about these changes to the Highway Code is that they make things safer for pedestrians. As I have pointed out, they already had priority if they had started to cross the road—there was no change there—but there have been some other minor changes that will make things clearer and safer for pedestrians.

Has a government department considered cyclists riding abreast on country roads? I live in Devon, where the roads are extremely narrow and used by cars, a lot of horses and, of course, vehicles.

Many noble Lords will have heard me raise this point before. I am extremely concerned about rural roads: my view is that, sometimes, motorists seem to think that they have precedence on them, but they do not, and that really concerns me. We are very clear about cyclists: if you are riding on a rural road, or indeed any road, ride in the centre if it is quiet, if there is slow-moving traffic or if you are approaching a junction. If you are on a rural road, of course you would move aside at some point, if there were a car waiting behind you. But, if you are travelling in a car at 30 miles per hour behind a cyclist who is travelling at 15 miles per hour and you are delayed for one mile, you have lost just two minutes of journey time. I sometimes think that we need to be more cognisant of the users on rural roads especially—not only cyclists but horse riders.