So when did you last look at the Highway Code? Like the majority of us, it was probably the night before you sat the driving test you passed.
Hands up those who think you only need to know the Highway Code if you drive. Uh oh! Rules 1-35 apply to pedestrians. Rules 36-46 are for powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters. We then have animals, cyclists and motorcycles and it is not until Rule 89 that drivers are mentioned.
Actually, for the purposes of this article, I have recently skim read the Highway Code online. I was searching for clarification on the cycling primary and secondary positions. I found nothing but more on that later.
What I did find were many MUSTS and MUST NOTS but more astonishingly, a heck of a lot of SHOULDS. These keywords are peppered throughout the Highway Code and whilst the former is very clear (legally clear), there is far too much ambiguity about the SHOULDS.
I use the highways as a pedestrian, a cyclist and a driver and my own anecdotal experience has made me feel that the standards of highway users have fallen considerably in the last couple of decades, despite the UK driving test being harder to pass. So many people are impatient with no regard for other road users. But that isn’t really a surprise given that there is no law I am aware of which states pedestrians and cyclists even need to read the Highway Code. For those with a driving licence, there is no law to say you have to read it every week. Even if you did, there is an awful lot missing which should be included (nothing on shared space like we have in Mill Street). You need only take your driving test once and then never look at the rules again. You can pass your test in Wick then be allowed to drive down the M6 and onto the M25. Similarly, someone could pass their test in Greater London and then go and drive in Wester Ross on single track roads where sheep and tractors abound. Imagine a pilot only ever being tested on their capabilities once, or being allowed to pilot a passenger airline without getting in a simulator first. I’d be more than a little nervous if they were piloting my plane
Of course, you should be aware of the rules but getting caught out owes more to chance and luck rather than regular tests. And even if tests were compulsory every so often, the entire Code could do with a makeover to ensure no ambiguity and every road user is clear on the rules.
I say this because there are rules out there that exist but are difficult to pin down. Going back to my original reason for research – the cycling primary and secondary positions. There is nothing on them anywhere in any of the Rules 1-307 or any of the annexes or even electronic searches of the manual. Nothing! But it is most definitely a thing and the only reason I know about it is because I took a cycling course when volunteered to help out with Bikeability [cycling proficiency test] at my local primary school. As someone who was out on the bike a lot at the time, I was pretty stunned that I didn’t know about it before.
For those not aware, according to the British Cycling organisation, a cyclist is perfectly entitled to cycle in the primary position which is the centre of the lane or in the flow of traffic. It is sometimes referred to as ‘taking the lane’. Yes, you read that correctly. Contrary to what many may think, it is often safer to cycle in this position where you can see better and also be seen more easily, particularly in busy town centres. It can also discourage vehicle drivers from performing dangerous manoeuvres like overtaking when there isn’t enough room or there is an oncoming vehicle.
The secondary position is approximately one metre to the left of the flow of traffic but not less than half a metre from the edge of the road and certainly not in the gutter. This secondary position may be appropriate if the road is wide enough to allow safe overtaking and the cyclist’s safety is not compromised (pot holes, obstructions, ice, etc.).
A cyclist is not obliged to ride in a cycle lane and vehicle drivers should not be screaming at them to do so. Take it from me, the cycle lanes in Perth are terrifying. The ones on the Glasgow Road and Scone Road are interspersed with traffic islands that prevent that part of the road being cleaned and I will not be riding my bike through an unknown, skiddy pile of debris. They are also far too narrow, more like lip-service has been paid to creating cycling lanes by someone who has never cycled. They create a perception that if a cyclist is in one then it is ok to pass them within inches, even when there is little space to do so. They are not continuous therefore it is more dangerous to cycle in one then try to join the flow of traffic when the lane comes to an abrupt end. The ones on the mini-roundabouts on the western edge defy explanation.
This is where the Highway Code misses a trick or several. It does state that you SHOULD wear a helmet. However it is not a legal requirement. It also states that you MUST NOT cycle on the pavement, something that is definitely illegal to do. I have been in the odd position of cycling without a helmet and receiving abuse for doing so from someone who was cycling on the pavement. One of us was breaking the law and it wasn’t me. I’ll leave the great helmet debate for another time, but this illustrates a basic lack of knowledge regarding the law.
Back to the Highway Code and it’s ambiguity – nowhere does it state that a cyclist should not ride in the middle of the lane nor does it state that a cyclist should only ride to the left of the lane either. Would it not make sense to be a little clearer on this? If most folk only look at the Highway Code when they are preparing to sit their driving test does it not make sense to inform them better when there is this one chance to get their attention? It does state that use of cycle lanes etc. is not compulsory (Rule 61). However there is a perception among the majority of UK road users that you should keep to the left if you’re on a bike. It wouldn’t take much to just slot in another couple of rules explaining road positioning and the whole road network would be considerably safer.
If there was a greater awareness of the primary and secondary cycling positions there may be less animosity between the various road users and eventually, the roads would become safer places. This would then encourage more folk to get on their bikes benefitting their health and reducing air pollution.
Unless cycle lanes are segregated, continuous and joined up then they are not fit for purpose but resource constraints mean it is unlikely this is ever going to happen. So here is an alternative solution for Perth which may sound rather controversial – get rid of the current cycle lanes and paint a logo (see below) on the road every so often to remind everyone to share the road.
Bikes and vehicles are inanimate objects. They don’t cause accidents, it is the person operating them who does. If a cyclist jumps a red light, if a driver cuts in front too soon or if a pedestrian isn’t looking where they are going it is because they are idiots. We need to stop grouping road users under headings like cyclist, driver, pedestrian and then assume they will behave in a certain way because of their chosen mode of transport. There is a person in a car or a person on a bike or a person walking. Thankfully most road users are decent, considerate, sensible and law-abiding. We just all need to think of each other as people, not objects, who are all entitled to use the highway. We need to share the road, not claim it.