Why we need 20 mph speed limits if the changes to the Highway Code are to work

We feel that this guest blog is particularly relevant to the update to the Highway Code. It explains the changes and also how default 20mph limits are complementary to these changes. Thanks to Carl Waring of Mooneerams for their perspective.

After a decade without revision, a statutory instrument laid before Parliament last December finally paved the way for a raft of new rules to be introduced into the Highway Code on January 29th

The Department for Transport (DfT) believes that the changes to the Code will Improve safety for vulnerable road users by giving them priority in potentially dangerous situations on or near the highway.

The most significant changes to the Highway Code may be summarised as follows:

  • There is now a hierarchy of road users. The rationale behind this concept is that drivers of large vehicles - buses, coaches, HGVs and LGVs – will now bear the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger they pose to other road users. This is good news for those road users already referred to in the Highway Code as ‘vulnerable’.

  • Pedestrians are at the top of the tree of hierarchy meaning that even cyclists and horse riders, bear a degree of responsibility for reducing the danger they too pose to pedestrians.

  • When turning into or out of a side road, drivers should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross into a road in which they are turning.

  • Drivers should now give way to pedestrians waiting at zebra crossings and to pedestrians and cyclists waiting to cross at parallel crossings. By virtue of rule 195 they must give way to those already crossing.

  • Pedestrians can now walk on designated cycle tracks, unless there is a sign expressly prohibiting them from doing so. Cyclists should give way to pedestrians who are using shared use cycle tracks.

  • Only pedestrians may use pavements.

  • Cyclists (plus horse riders and horse drawn vehicles) have priority over drivers and motorcyclists at junctions, meaning the latter should not cut across cyclists who are going straight ahead, when they are turning into or out of a junction or changing direction or lane.

  • Drivers and motorcyclists must not turn at a junction if doing so would cause a cyclist to swerve or stop.

  • Drivers and motorcyclists should stop and wait for a safe gap in the flow of cyclists to allow their safe passage.

  • When overtaking, drivers should give motorcyclists, cyclists, horse riders and horse drawn vehicles at least as much room as they would when overtaking a car. As a guide they should:

a) Leave at least 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists at speeds of up to 30 mph and leave more space when driving at over 30mph or in bad weather.

b) Leave at least 2 metres when passing a pedestrian walking on the road, at speeds of up to 30mph and leave extra space in poor weather or when driving in excess of 30mph.


The full set of alterations and additions to the Code can be viewed in more detail by visiting ‘The Highway Code. Alterations to the Highway Code.’  (The alterations to the code are, helpfully, italicised.)

How have the alterations to the Highway Code been received?

In July 2020, the government launched a consultation to gather the views on the proposed changes form a wide range of respondents. Approximately 21,000 people responded, and of those asked:

78.96% agreed with the introduction of a new hierarchy of road users.

74.80% agreed with the introduction of stronger priorities being given to pedestrians

88.60% agreed with the introduction of the proposed priorities being afforded to cyclists including giving them a right of way in the situations set out above.

In announcing the changes, Minister for Transport, Grant Shapps was reported as saying:

"Millions of us have found over the past year how cycling and walking are great ways to stay fit, ease congestion on the roads and do your bit for the environment."

"As we build back greener from the pandemic, we're determined to keep that trend going by making active travel easier and safer for everyone.”

The head of campaigns at Cycling UK described the changes as ‘fantastic news’.

On the other hand, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, Richard Burnett, was quoted as being less enthusiastic about the changes, saying:

“As far as we can see, there is little, if any, justification for these changes.

The hierarchy of risk created by the operation of cars, vans, coaches, buses and lorries is already reflected in the additional ongoing training undertaken by lorry and coach drivers.”

The overall consensus is that the amendments undertaken to the Highway Code are a force for good.  

Our view is that any initiatives aimed at providing more protection to the most vulnerable road users, particularly pedestrians, must surely be welcomed.

Are there any other concerns about the amendments to the Highway Code?

We have a few concerns, and they are:

  1. Whether enough people will get to know about the changes for them to have any chance of being effective?
  2. If they do hear about the changes, whether that be through the media, government awareness campaigns or by picking up the Highway Code and reading it, will they take any notice of the new rules.

Getting to know about the rule changes

Whilst the changes to the Code are highly commendable, for people to take them on board and comply with the new rules, they have to know about them in the first place.

According to a report on the This is Money website, one in five motorists haven’t even looked at the Highway Code for a decade. The truth is most people probably read the Highway Code when getting ready to take their driving test and that’s it. They won’t ever pick it up again.

In reality, it’s fair to say that few motorists are likely to stumble across the changes by a chance scroll through the ‘drivers bible’.   Accordingly, one would expect the arrival of the new rules to have been brought to the attention of the road using public by means of a concerted and highly visible national PR campaign promoted by the government.   

However even just a month before the new changes took effect, the RAC conducted a poll of 13000 drivers and discovered that 33 per cent of those consulted, hadn’t got a clue that an amended highway code was to be published, imminently.

The Press are belatedly beginning to carry articles outlining the more eye catching of the new rules and amendments. In response to calls from road user groups for the Government to drastically step up its awareness campaigns, the Department for Transport has attempted to provide reassurance that there will be immediate and ongoing campaigns particularly under the auspices of its ‘Think!’ road safety campaigns website.  

Whether and how quickly the population get to learn about the rule changes, is anyone’s guess, as is whether they will take heed of them, should they get to know of their existence.

Will drivers take any notice of the new and amended rules of the Highway Code?

The Highway Code is a rather frustrating rulebook in the sense that a significant proportion of the rules it contains are advisory rather than mandatory. The mandatory rules mean that by law, road users must abide by them. As ‘must’ rules have legal muscle behind them in that they are supported by the criminal law, if you breach them, and get found out, you will be prosecuted.

Rules that are advisory won’t lead to you being prosecuted if you don’t comply with them. However if a civil personal injury claim is made against you, for instance as a result of a pedestrian accident caused by your breach of a Highway code rule, your failure to adhere to the rule can be used in evidence in any subsequent court case.

Here’s an example of two rules that are closely linked but which are backed up by different degrees of legal clout:

Rule H2 : Rule for drivers, motorcyclists, horse drawn vehicles, horse riders and cyclists

At a junction you should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross a road into which or from which you are turning. (Advisory)

You MUST give way to pedestrians on a zebra crossing, and to pedestrians and cyclists on a parallel crossing (see Rule 195) (Mandatory)

There are far fewer mandatory rules in the Highway Code than there are advisory ones, which leads some people to argue that the Highway Code carries very little force of law to back it up. For that reason, people can choose to ignore all but the mandatory rules.

We don’t agree with this argument. Our view is that ignorance of the rules is much more of a problem than wilful disregard of them.

We think there is another way of looking at this.

The Case for 20mph Speed Limits

If the transport minister, as the Government’s spokesperson on this issue, really wants the changes to the Highway Code to work and be a catalyst for getting more people out walking, running, and cycling, for easing congestion and making our roads safer, then there is one single thing the government could do, and that would be a massive step to achieving his stated aims;  support and facilitate making 20 mph the default speed limit in cities, towns, and villages, on a nationwide basis.

This website carries the findings of a study showing that people in their local communities understand the effects vehicles travelling at excess speeds have on their ability to enjoy the benefits of walking, running, and cycling in their locality. They understand that reducing speed leads to less pollution and they strongly support the imposition of 20 mph speed limits in residential streets. We know this because 70% of them indicated their support for 20mph speed limits in residential streets.

Already millions of people nationwide live under local authorities that have implemented 20mph wide areas. The difference between travelling at 20mph and 30mph is marked in terms of road traffic accident casualty figures, typically resulting in 20% fewer casualties

Getting 20mph speed limits adopted across the UK is no pipedream. Trial 20 mph speed limits are already under way in eight areas of Wales, ahead of a proposed national rollout to replace the current 30mph speed limits, by April 2023.

The Scottish Government published its Road Safety Framework to 2030 which included a call for 20mph limits to become the norm in Scottish towns and villages by 2025. 

The UN has called for 30 kmph limits (approximately 20 mph) as part of a global drive to cut road deaths and injuries by fifty percent.

In March 2021, WHO, the World Health Organisation, launched a campaign to makes 30kmph limits the norm in streets of cities, worldwide.

If there are any downsides to having 20mph speed limits (and we don’t believe there are), then they are by far outweighed by the benefits of having them. They save lives, allow pedestrians, runners and families to reclaim the streets, and reduce emissions and noise.

Why the new Highway Code won’t work without 20mph speed limits

For motorists to be able to comply with the rules of the updated Highway Code, it is pretty much a pre-requisite they be driving at no more than 20mph in local urban areas. The whole rationale behind the changes to the Highway Code is underpinned by the requirement to consider the needs of vulnerable road users. A cursory glance at some of the key changes to the rules demonstrates that for drivers to comply with many of the rule changes, they will need to travel at less than the current 30 mph general, minimum speed limit.

For example, to ensure compliance with all three new rules H1 to H3 it is necessary for motorists to reduce their minimum speed:

H1 New hierarchy of road users Drivers of vehicles that can cause the greatest harm in the event of a collision bear the greatest responsibility to take care and reduce the danger to others. In what way can drivers that can cause the greatest harm best take care and reduce the danger (they pose) to others?

Not only by reducing their speed when in the vicinity of vulnerable road users, but also keeping their speed down when in areas where they are likely to encounter the presence of vulnerable road users at any time i.e., in cities, towns and villages.

So, to comply with the requirements of Rule H1, it’s not a case of reducing speed limits simply on one off occasions, but whilst driving in urban areas generally. And the best way to ensure uniform compliance, is? Reduce the speed limit in such areas, uniformly to 20mph.

The same logic applies to Rule H2 New Priority for pedestrians at junction requiring drivers to be alert to the possibility of ‘pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross a road into which you are turning’,

and likewise, pedestrians waiting to cross a zebra crossing and pedestrians and cyclists waiting to cross a parallel crossing.

Rule H3 New priority for cyclists when cars are turning. The requirement for drivers to give priority to cyclists, horse riders and horse drawn carriages when turning into or out of a junction in effect replicates Rule H1 for pedestrians. Again, to ensure drivers don’t pose a risk of causing harm to the vulnerable road user, their speed needs to be kept down over a prolonged period to ensure compliance with Rule H3.

In fact, if one were to go through almost every new or amended rule of the Highway Code, it’s almost certain that a reduced speed limit of 20mph would improve the chances of the rule being complied with and there’s a case for saying that without a reduced limit it’s almost impossible for drivers to comply with the rules.

If the UK government is serious about making our streets safer for all road users, then now is the opportunity to throw its weight behind the campaign for a speed limit of 20 mph to become the new norm on residential streets throughout the country. In fact, for the new Highway Code to work, it’s an opportunity they can’t afford to pass over.


Mooneerams are personal injury solicitors based in South Wales, helping clients across the UK with all personal injury matters including road traffic accidents, pedestrian accidents and serious injuries.


Visit https://www.mooneerams.com/ for expert advice or call 029 2048 3615.


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  • Rod King
    published this page in Blogs 2022-01-29 06:58:52 +0000