The Highway Code review: cycling is a social activity

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 148.

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As part of its ‘Gear Change’ strategy, the Department for Transport is consulting upon proposed changes to the Highway Code, to improve safety for vulnerable road users. While Camcycle welcomes the review, we believe that additional work needs to be done, particularly in relation to Rule 66. Matthew Danish explains why

Rule 66 covers riding in groups, what you may carry, and being considerate. You can see the existing rule below, with the proposed text next to it. I’ll say it straight up: the proposed changes to the first half of the rule are broken and just as misguided as the existing text. The authors of this document and the changes have completely missed the point of why people ride side-by-side. They are focused on a sporting frame-of-reference, in which drivers and cyclists jockey for position on narrow country roads. That particular aspect might be important for 1-2% of people who are riding cycles, but the significance of side-by-side riding is relevant to 100% of people, yet goes completely unmentioned in either text.

People are social beings and cycling is a social activity. This is something that should be understood by every designer, engineer, planner, architect or any other person who deals with streets and public space, along with inclusivity and accessibility. People are not machines. We are human and we want to be alongside other humans. Parents need to be able to cycle alongside their children, to talk to them, to help them along, to be part of their life. Friends need to be able to talk to each other, just like when walking, or riding in a car. This is particularly well understood in the Netherlands, where side-by-side cycling is sacrosanct.

Social cycling is also the key to enabling ‘mass cycling’, the situation where large numbers of people are cycling at the same time in the same place on a regular basis, and everyone needs to get along with all other road users. The only way that can work is through human interaction and consideration, the same way that people can easily navigate crowded places on foot. There is a certain tendency in the engineering world to reduce every problem to numbers and to see cycling in isolation, rather than being a feature that springs out of liveable, sociable streets and neighbourhoods.

When put in terms of people as social beings, then it is obvious that cycling side-by-side is essential human behaviour. Therefore, there must not be any circumstances under which harm to a person cycling feels justifiable by a driver or a judge because of side-by-side riding. Drivers who harass or honk at people riding sideby-side are behaving in a criminal or anti-social fashion, no different than if they harassed, shouted at, or assaulted people walking side-by-side. We would never demand that drivers remove the front passenger seat from their cars, and in return drivers must treat people cycling side-by-side with due care and respect.

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Other notes about rule 66

One of the bullet points in the rule claims that you should not carry anything ‘which affects your balance’. This seems to imply that you should not wear or carry anything at all, because on a bike everything affects your balance in some way or another. This bullet point should be dropped, since the plain meaning of it could potentially be used to discriminate against people for doing perfectly normal activities such as carrying children or cargo with them on a bike.

On the final bullet point: we want everyone to be considerate on the roads and take care, especially around vulnerable road users. Here, the government’s proposed changes seem reasonable. However, we think the entire rule could be rephrased in terms of considerate and social cycling. Because cycling is a social activity, it implies social awareness of the needs of people around you, thinking about others, and making adjustments to accommodate them considerately. Much of the rest of the existing rule 66 text is either pointless or could be incorporated into other rules.

Camcycle’s revision

Our justification for the change to the ‘two abreast’ reference falls under the five core cycling principles from LTN 1/20. Comfort, because a family cycling together is going to feel much better if they can stay in a group. Attractiveness, because more people will cycle when they can treat it as social activity rather than isolated exercise. The key understanding is that people are not machines. Cycling is a social activity: we hope others see the importance of getting this principle right, and join us in pushing for this change.

The DfT’s Proposed Higway Code Changes

Rule 1: Hierarchy of responsibility / users

This rule would establish the principle that people in charge of the largest vehicles, with the potential to cause the most harm in a collision, bear the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger they pose to others.

Rules 2/3/76: Junction priority

All people/vehicles going straight ahead would have right of way over those turning left.

Rule 66: Group riding

New proposals (see left) to remove the rule that cyclists may never ride more than two abreast.

Rule 163: Overtaking rules

The new rule would advise drivers to keep a minimum distance of 1.5m from cyclists where traffic speeds are under 30mph, or 2m where speeds are over 30mph, with more space needed for large vehicles or in bad weather. It also confirms that cyclists are permitted to filter through stationary traffic on either side.

Rule 239: Opening car doors

The new rule would advise people to use the Dutch Reach technique, using the hand on the opposite side to the door they are opening.

Rules 72/213: Road positioning

This rule refers to two basic road positions – ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ – which cyclists should adopt, depending on the situation, rather than riding by the kerb.

Rule 140: Cycle lanes and tracks

Drivers are advised that cyclists don’t have to use cycle lanes or cycle tracks, and that when they do drivers should give way to them when turning or changing lane.

Rule 151: Allowing pedestrians and cyclists to cross in front in slow-moving traffic

Drivers should allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross in front of them in slow-moving traffic.

Rule 178: Advanced stop lines

New advice for drivers to stop as soon as possible when signals turn red, allow extra space behind the ASL if driving a large vehicle and give cyclists time and space to move off.

Rule 186: Drivers to give priority to cyclists at roundabouts

Drivers are advised to give priority and plenty of room to cyclists on a roundabout, not attempt to overtake within their lane, and allow cyclists to move across their path as they travel around the roundabout.