Nine sections have been updated, with 50 rules added or amended. But if this revamp comes as news to you, you’re not alone – according to surveys by various motoring bodies and industry publications, as many as one in three people are not aware of the alterations.
While the online version of the Highway Code has been updated, physical copies setting out the new rules won’t be available until April. The trouble is, few experienced motorists regularly refer to the ’bible of the road’, which is revised on a rolling basis: one-third admit to not having read any part of it since they passed their test, and one in five haven’t looked at a copy in at least a decade.
To communicate the changes, the Department for Transport ran a factual, awareness-raising campaign in February across radio and social media, with a broader, behavioural change campaign set to launch later in the year which will hopefully do more to encourage the general public’s understanding and uptake of the new guidance.
Let’s look at some of the key changes to the Highway Code as well as forthcoming legislation, and their implications for your commercial motor customers, their fleet managers and drivers.
Highway Code introduces risk-based hierarchy of road users
The most fundamental change of principle is the addition of a Hierarchy of Road Users, in order of potential harm. While all road users have a responsibility to ensure their own safety and that of others, vehicles have much greater capacity to cause damage, serious injury or fatalities in a collision. So, there is extra emphasis on drivers to maintain safe behaviours and practices on the roads.
Further key amendments to address the concept of shared space on our roads include clearer guidance for drivers to leave a safe berth of at least 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists at speeds of up to 30mph (or 2 metres when driving at higher speeds), and instructing drivers turning into a road to give way to pedestrians waiting to cross.
There is also a recommendation for car users to reduce the risk of opening a door into the path of a cyclist by employing a technique known as the “Dutch reach” – using the hand on the opposite side to the door – as twisting the upper torso naturally encourages drivers to look in the rear view and side mirrors and over their shoulder.
You can find out more information about the eight key changes to the rules of the Highway Code on the Government website.
How is the Highway Code enforced?
Many of the rules set out in the Highway Code are advisory, which means that someone won’t be prosecuted for failure to comply with them. However, these rules can be used in court to establish liability in the event of an accident under the Road Traffic Act, and anyone found at fault as a result of not complying may face charges. However, rules using wording such as “must” or “must not” are supported by traffic laws, meaning drivers can be fined, prosecuted or disqualified if they ignore them.
The likely impact on commercial fleets and claims
Of course, it’s important that all road users are considerate and understand their responsibility for others’ safety. However, commercial customers in particular need to be aware of these changes and their potential impact on the business. Employers have clear duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Management of Health and Safety at Work regulations to manage occupational road risks as part of their wider OSH management responsibilities. Businesses should ensure their drivers are informed of the updates and are prepared for any changes in the behaviours of vulnerable road users to avoid confusion or conflict.
However, in the wake of these changes, it is likely that we will see an increase in claims from vulnerable road users, which can be upsetting for all involved, not to mention costly. Unfortunately, when any law tips the balance in favour of a particular party in terms of liability, there can be an uplift in the presentation of fraudulent personal injury claims and even deliberately contrived accidents, despite the risks involved to life and limb, and unscrupulous individuals may specifically target commercial or liveried vehicles.
Phone use while driving set to become ‘as unacceptable as drink-driving’
A new, stricter set of laws governing the use of mobile phones while driving will come into force from 25 March, and will have effect in England, Scotland and Wales. It has been illegal since 2003 for drivers to call or text while driving (which includes being stationary at traffic lights). But in an attempt to close loopholes that have emerged since the advent of smartphone technology, drivers will be banned from using a hand-held device for ‘interactive communication’. This includes unlocking the device; checking the time or notifications, scrolling through playlists; making, receiving or even rejecting a call; using the camera, video or sound recordings; and accessing apps or the internet, among others.
The existing exemption which allows a driver to use a phone in emergencies still applies. Using a mobile phone for navigation will continue to be legal, as long as the device is kept in a cradle and not in the driver’s hand. Further updates are expected to Government guidance on using a phone or sat nav while driving, and the Highway Code, aimed at reducing misunderstandings about the difference between hand-held and hands-free use.
Legislative clamp-down on careless driving
The Government is also set to introduce a new offence of ‘causing serious injury by careless driving’ in 2022, punishable with an obligatory disqualification from driving and a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. Unlike dangerous driving, careless driving doesn’t require any conscious risk-taking behaviour, and can be established on the minor basis of a momentary lapse of concentration. A likely outcome of criminalisation is that in the event of any collision which results in another person receiving medical attention, the driver may be treated as a suspect by the police in the aftermath of the accident. As a serious crime, such cases will likely be heard in the Crown Court rather than the Magistrates, increasing both the length and cost of proceedings and the prospect of reputational damage to the business through adverse media exposure.
Responsible businesses should consider how to lower the risk of drivers being involved in an accident in the first place – such as specifying driver hours and breaks beyond the minimum legal requirements, tightening policies on the use of hands-free mobile devices while driving, and increasing the frequency of driver training and refreshers. They can support employees if an accident should occur by implementing a system that enables drivers to access immediate legal advice, 24/7. The use of fleet telematics can also help to detect aspects of driver behaviour that could be indicative of careless driving.
How can RSA help fleet managers build a culture of safety?
In addition to the human cost to employees and the public, road traffic accidents can incur hefty repair bills, downtime, insurance claims and potential court fees, not to mention reputational damage for businesses. Many accidents are entirely preventable, and putting road safety at the top of fleet managers’ list of priorities is simply the right thing to do.
Of course, RSA is known for providing a range of high-quality cover options for business fleets of all sizes, from a few cars to large commercial fleets. In addition, our experienced, expert risk consultants can work with your commercial customers to build a culture of safety and improve fleet performance through practical, pragmatic measures – in fact, businesses that take advantage of our fleet risk consultation typically see a reduction in claims frequency in the range of 20% - 30%. And lastly, our telematics solution, RSA Smart Fleet, provides visibility of vehicle usage, location, historical journeys and driving behaviour, putting actionable insights to improve efficiency and safety directly into fleet managers’ hands.
To find out more how RSA can help your customers achieve compelling financial and commercial benefits through safer driving, visit our website.