Joe Irvin OBE was Living Streets chief executive when the Government promised to consult on improvements to the Highway Code. With the proposals now out for public consultation, he lays out what these changes could mean for pedestrians.

Joe Irvin

Back in 2018, the Walking and Cycling Alliance (WACA) was thrilled to learn that the Government would be issuing a consultation on the Highway Code to make it safer for people walking and cycling - you can watch a video I made at the time here.

The proposals that have been issued this week reflect the ideas of WACA, made up of Living Streets, the Bicycle Association, British Cycling, Cycling UK, the Ramblers and Sustrans. 

The most impactful change for people out walking is to make clear that drivers and riders should give way to pedestrians, not only when you have stepped onto the road at a zebra crossing or a junction, but also when you are waiting to cross. 

This would end an infamous Catch 22 in the current Code.


This is the Catch 22: traffic must stop when you step onto the crossing, but you shouldn’t step onto the crossing until the traffic has stopped.

Joe Irvin OBE

hierarchy of road users

Underpinning these changes is a ‘hierarchy of road users’, with pedestrians at the top, making clear that those road users who can cause the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they pose to others.  

The hierarchy does not of course remove the need for everyone, including people walking and cycling, to behave responsibly. Instead it clarifies the people who are most at risk from road traffic are people walking – particularly children, older and disabled people, followed by people cycling, horse riders and motorcyclists. Those with most responsibility are those driving heavier vehicles, vans and cars.

Other important changes include:

  • Updated rules to make cycling safer, especially making clear that when turning, drivers should not cut across cyclists going ahead at a junction
  • Clearer guidance for drivers on overtaking distances 
  • A stronger injunction for drivers to keep pedestrian crossings clear in stalled traffic 
  • Special stress on people with disabilities, older adults and children 
  • Advising cyclists to give room when passing pedestrians in shared cycle paths 
  • Advising drivers in slow moving traffic to allow pedestrians to cross in front of them 
  • Advice on the Dutch reach’, to ensure when drivers open their vehicle door they look behind for traffic including bikes. 

Show your support for these changes

Why is the change needed?

Currently the Highway Code makes clear that a driver MUST stop to give way to a pedestrian when they have stepped onto the zebra crossing. But the advice to pedestrians is not to step onto the crossing until all traffic has halted. Drivers are advised to ‘watch out for people waiting to cross’, but not told what to do next. 

This is the Catch 22: traffic must stop when you step onto the crossing, but you shouldn’t step onto the crossing until the traffic has stopped.  

Again the current Rule 170 says to drivers, at a junction : ‘If (pedestrians) have started to cross they have priority, so give way.’ But it just says: ‘watch out for pedestrians crossing a road into which you are turning.’ 

The new rule H2 makes clear that at a junction, drivers should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross a road into which or out of which they are turning. 

This is crucial because pedestrians bear the brunt of road casualties, and the most common place for collisions is at road junctions. And the sense of danger when crossing the road can make people fearful of walking altogether, especially if they are older or have an impairment. This limits people’s lives and harms our health through lack of exercise. 

On pedestrian safety, there was a concern that people, especially children, should not be encouraged to put themselves in danger by exerting their 'right of way'. 

It was accordingly agreed to maintain the current rule at zebra crossings that pedestrians should not step out into the road until traffic has stopped (Rule 19). The onus is therefore on drivers, and that is why it is proposed to clarify that drivers and riders should give way to people crossing or waiting to cross at a zebra crossing or junction.

The new Code also adds the important advice: ‘Always remember that the people you encounter may have impaired sight, hearing or mobility, and may not be able to see or hear you.’

young people walking

Gaining support

Before putting forward our specific suggestions WACA held talks with a large number of interested organisations – including road safety groups, disability charities and motoring bodies. 

I served on a Department for Transport working group representing WACA, along with Roger Geffen of Cycling UK and active travel consultant Phil Jones.

Now all this work is coming to fruition. 

Of course, changing the Code will not automatically change everyone’s behaviour. Some of the Code reflects statutory law. And all of the Highway Code may be used in evidence in court proceedings in England, Scotland and Wales.

But to really make a difference, the government will need to publicly advertise the main changes far and wide, and build it into driving tuition and professional driver training, to bring it into people’s consciousness. 

Walking is a vital part of our lives – something we have grown to appreciate more during the recent lockdown. 

It accounts for a quarter of all the journeys we make. It is the most accessible form of exercise and the most likely way for people to get more active. These changes to the Highway Code do not provide all the answers to encouraging people to feel safer and walk more, but they are a significant part of the solution.

Please support these changes and encourage others do so.  

Watch our video