Re-opening society after a two year pause for a covid measures is almost universally welcome across UK society as a whole, and those who use the country’s road network in particular. Indeed, it could be said that busy roads mean that Britain is getting back to normal; the check MOT system is recovering from its backlog, and drivers are optimistic. Unfortunately, however, those very motorists have already faced a number of new challenges since restrictions have been phased out. Most importantly, many would argue, are Highway Code changes introduced in late January 2022. These have been problematic from their onset, and experts say these problems will get worse.
The new Highway Code rules caused trouble even before they came into force; or, rather, before most drivers knew anything about them. Motoring groups say the changes were so poorly publicised that the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) themselves caused unnecessary danger on the roads, thanks to a woefully deficient publicity and rollout period. The government’s own research revealed that, after the changes came in on 29th January, 90% of the British public didn’t know they had; that figure includes drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and everybody else affected by the Code.
In an attempt, critics say, to bolt the stable door after the horse had bolted, the DfT launched a publicity campaign for the changes after they’d been introduced. By this time, hundreds of motorists had already been the subject of actions – including fines – relating to offences of which they’d been unaware at the time. The new code changes consist of 50 changes, spread over a whole nine sections of the document; thus the risk of committing a new offence is quite high. To make matters worse, one of the new rules is the removal of caps for fines; in theory, these can now be unlimited. This double whammy could have led to drivers facing huge fines for offences they knew nothing about.
Causing more problems than most rule changes seem to be those relating to cyclists. The code has introduced the hierarchy of road users system, whereby people in charge of fast and heavy vehicles have a duty of care over those on lighter, slower ones, or none at all (i.e. pedestrians). As a consequence of adopting this system, the new Code rules say that motorists must allow 1.5 metres of room to the side when overtaking cyclists. Not included in the hierarchy system, but added by the DVSA, is the fining regime; cyclists can only be fined a maximum of £1,000 for any offence, while motorists face unlimited fines and a 9 point penalty.
Transport experts predict an extended period of conflict caused by the introduction of these changes to the Highway Code. While the way they were introduced has already led to penalties and appeals, it’s possible this will have a long lasting legacy. Unlike process improvements like the online check MOT system, driver behaviour has very little to do with technology. A leading insurance company, for example, has revealed that 42% of its driving customers felt hostile towards the Highway Code changes, at least in part because they were imposed without their knowledge. The hierarchy system also, in their view, punishes motorists more than any other group of road users; something the former see as totally unfair. On the other hand, pedestrians in particular could be in danger if they assume that a motorist approaching a crossing will give them the right of way, as the new rules demand.
One way of helping the situation, according to motoring organizations, is for drivers to have a paper copy of the new Code handy in their cars and vans, to help them assimilate them. For its part, the DfT has launched a double edged campaign, based on its successful “Think!” advertising slogan. Firstly, appropriate media are to show Think! based adverts, targeted at times when experts predict motorists watch certain television programmes. After this initial awareness phase, the plan is to focus on what is referred to as “embedding behaviours”; i.e. trying to ensure these good new habits are adopted by motorists.
For many critics, however, these campaigns are too little and too late. They say that all such efforts should have been made before the changes were introduced; and the fact they weren’t has made many motorists resentful of both the changes and the government. While nobody is suggesting rules will deliberately be broken, it is hardly a good buy-in.