Earlier in December, British Cycling announced a new campaign, 'Turning the Corner', that calls for changes in the Highway Code to make priority rules at junctions clearer for all road users. The message can be boiled down to one simple sentence: "When turning, give way to people going straight ahead." This is intended to cover any situation where someone is turning into or out of a side-road, whether in a car or on a cycle, and someone is going straight across that side-road, be they walking, cycling or using any other transport. It is 9 years since the Highway Code was last updated, so an update is due next year and necessary due to the emergence of self-driving cars as well as changes in cycle infrastructure. The campaign is being supported by the AA and RAC among other groups, and there is a petition to sign to show your support.
The campaign says that this change in the Highway Code will simplify matters and produce clarity, which will certainly be helpful. As with the new 20 mph speed limits in Birmingham, there will need to be a widespread education campaign to change driving habits if this change goes ahead. That clarity will be very important though when self-driving cars emerge on our roads, to ensure that the programming for them is very simple; if something is approaching on the left-hand side and the car can not comfortably make a turning in time then the car would have to be programmed to give way. While that might be frustrating to the occupants of the car, if the Highway Code is clear on the issue then the manufacturers will be obliged to programme it in. The clarity will also be important for apportioning blame in road traffic collisions; ignorance of changes to the Highway Code is not an excuse to reduce blame. In this way insurance companies would have fewer excuses to avoid paying compensation in collisions.
However the campaign also claims that this change has "the potential to improve safety standards to those seen on Dutch roads" which we certainly need to take with a pinch of salt. Changes in driving behaviour can certainly increase safety, and making people look carefully when turning could do much to reduce 'left-hook' collisions. However even with a programme of public education followed by enforcement, that change could be slow in coming. New drivers would learn the rule but they are a small part of the total driving population and many road users are set in their ways. Dutch roads owe much of their safety to designing out situations where there is a big difference in the speed of road users in the same space - where cars and cycles mix, motor-traffic is slow and low in volume; where motor-traffic is high in volume and fast, cycles have their own space. This campaign would make some difference to the safety of ASLs and feeder lanes, but not a huge amount.
However, I think that this campaign is well-worth supporting:
Firstly, highways engineers design the mouths of junctions to facilitate motor-traffic leaving a main road promptly and quickly. I have been told by council officers that this is to reduce the risk of a rear-end collision by traffic behind that, I assume, is not paying sufficient attention. If the Highway Code was changed, we could argue that the assumption must be made that the motor traffic will have to give way at the side road, thus we can not design side road mouths that facilitate a fast, sweeping turn off the main road. Narrowing side-road mouths would have two benefits: firstly, the side-road is faster, thus safer, to cross; secondly, motor traffic turning into the side road is slowed down, reducing the damage caused by a collision. If we can get a clear signal from the Highway Code that motor traffic is expected to slow right down on main roads when turning off, we may be able to achieve some clear changes in highway design.
Secondly, we have all seen examples of cycle tracks that stop for every driveway and side road, resulting in give-way markings for cycle users every 50 meters or less. This change would make it very clear that the cycle users are expected to have priority and that the turning traffic must have the give-way markings. Currently the Highway Code does not make clear what the situation is for cycle tracks in these situations; this campaign would change that situation. The change would also benefit hybrid cycle lanes alongside roads, clarifying that they must not stop at side-roads, but rather the turning traffic must give way to them. If we are to make cycle infrastructure attractive to all cycle users, we must do away with stop-start infrastructure that saps energy and prevents smooth convenient journeys by cycle.
Birmingham is, we hope, undergoing a cycle revolution, with the roll out of high-quality cycle tracks on key routes. One of the main challenges is getting those cycle tracks to have continuity across side-roads against objections that cite road-safety but which actually mean that the assumed right of cars to turn quickly and smoothly should not be challenged. This change in the Highway Code could be part of challenging that narrative and asserting the right of cycles to be treated as important traffic to be given equal consideration. I hope that you'll support the campaign as part of the process to improve the UK's cycling environment.