The revised Highway Code, published in January 2022, makes it clear that vehicles that carry the greatest potential to do harm should be operated with a corresponding sense of caution and responsibility towards more vulnerable road users, creating a hierarchy of responsibility from huge HGVs to humble pedestrians.
The Highway Code’s new hierarchy is an explicit attempt to save us from ourselves. We have all experienced the phenomenon of a fierce sense of identification with the group to which we currently belong. If we are driving cars, we are maddened by irritating pedestrians and cyclists; if we are on foot we feel threatened and overlooked by cyclists and motorists, and so on. We are all quite capable of shifting these loyalties several times a day, depending on our circumstances. Defining and codifying our behaviour towards other road-users is an attempt to control these dangerous blindspots.
Pedestrians are now offered special protection. Not only must vehicles (including cycles) stop for them at zebra crossings, they must also give way at junctions where pedestrians are waiting to cross, or already in the process of crossing, and allow them to do so.
But pedestrians are not only protected from drivers in overbearingly large vehicles, they are also shielded from cyclists. Pavements are for pedestrians (and wheelchairs and mobility scooters) only. Cyclists are not allowed to use pavements, and it is to be hoped that, even if they are forced to share a cycle track with pedestrians, they will henceforth resist all temptations to intimidate slow-moving foot traffic: peremptory ringing of bells; sitting threateningly on a walker’s shoulder; swerving dangerously close to pedestrians as they overtake.
Inevitably, safety on the road is greatly enhanced by being observant and self-aware. Pedestrians’ vulnerabilities have been acknowledged in the new Highway Code, but it is still important that, when you are walking along a busy road, you are acutely aware of your environment – remember that looking at your phone as you walk and cutting out warning sounds by using headphones may lead to erratic, and dangerous, behaviour.
Moving up the hierarchy, cyclists need not feel discriminated against. Whilst their behaviour towards pedestrians is moderated, they are offered new protections from motorists. Horses and horse-drawn carriages are given the same rights and protections as cyclists.
When cyclists are going straight ahead at a junction, they have priority over traffic waiting to turn in or out of a side road. They are also given priority on roundabouts, where they may stay in the left-hand lane. Motorcyclists and other drivers are also advised they must not cut across cyclists when turning in or out of a junction, or changing direction or lane.
Safeguarding the vulnerable is laudable, but while the amended priorities laid out in the Highway Code provide a protective, and stratified, approach to other road-users, our actual conduct on the roads, whatever the rules we follow as we travel along them, is very much a matter of manners and behaviour.
Follow these simple rules to make our roads a more civilised and safer place for all road-users. Remember, good driving manners signal a reassuring awareness of other motorists, and an ability to disregard the vagaries of other drivers and rise above them.
• Let other cars into the queue in front of you with a friendly wave or ﬂash of the headlights – a graceful gesture that will only cost you seconds.
• Acknowledge other motorists’ gestures – it will make crowded, frustrating roads seem inﬁnitely more civilised.
• Indicate before you overtake or turn off. No one should have to second-guess your intentions, and sudden changes of direction endanger other road-users
• Breaking the speed limit is dangerous, but hesitant kerb-crawling can be very annoying for drivers caught behind you. Be decisive; if you are lost, pull over and consult a map or make polite enquiries of a passing pedestrian.
• Have the good sense to realise that children can be very unpredictable, and maintain extra vigilance around schools and residential areas.
• Always give cyclists and horse-riders plenty of leeway, slowing down when you approach them, and indicating when it’s safe to overtake.
• Acknowledge pedestrian crossings by slowing down as you approach them and checking for waiting pedestrians, or people who are approaching the crossing. Offer them the simple courtesy of waiting until they have finished crossing the road before you move away; never rev your engine as people are crossing the road.
Once in a car, normal manners may ﬂy out of the window. Encased in metal, you can feel invincible, confident that other drivers will not detect your anger through the glass windows and engine noise. But a car is a potentially lethal weapon, and a good driver will always remember this before using it as a way of expressing irritation, frustration or red-blooded rage. It goes without saying, therefore, that aggressive driving should be avoided at all costs:
• Tailgating, with or without ﬂashing headlights, and pointless horn-blowing are not the signs of alpha superiority, merely a dangerous inability to control emotions while in charge of a very powerful, and dangerous, machine.
• Do not take it upon yourself to police other drivers. We all witness bad driving every day, but the safe option is to adopt an attitude of zen-like calm and acceptance. If you feel agitated, pull over, calm down and, when you feel relaxed, continue your journey.
• Slow down and hold back if a road user pulls out into your path at a junction. Allow them to get clear. Do not over-react by driving too close behind to intimidate them.
• Avoid arguing with your passengers – it is dangerously distracting.
• Make allowances for older drivers: they may have slower reactions.
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