The Hierarchy of the Road: Never Heard of It, Don’t Follow It?

Image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay

Last time, we looked at how drivers were coping with changes to the Highway Code, with a quick quiz thrown in. This time, we’re zooming on the most controversial change from the 2022 updates.

Fixed Penalty Notices go through the roof

A couple of months back, the Home Office released the FPN (fixed penalty notice) statistics for 2022. And wowzer, there are some big increases. The figures show that compared to the previous year:

  • FPNs issued to motorists for ‘neglect of traffic signs and directions and of pedestrian rights’ increased by 33.8 % (105,500 in 2022 vs 78,900 in 2021).
  • FPNs issued to motorists over mobile phone use increased by 93% (37,900 in 2022 vs 19,600 in 2021).
  • FPNs for speeding were up by 6% (2.52 million in 2022 vs 2.37 million in 2021).

These rises are partly explained by better detection. Increases in camera use and sophistication have caught many more drivers than in previous years.

However, when it comes to the ‘pedestrian rights’ bit, there’s evidence that many motorists either don’t know the changed law, or are flat-out ignoring it.

Who’s following the new ‘Hierarchy of the Road’?

If you’ve not come across the ‘Hierarchy of the Road’, you’re not alone. Essentially, it is a system of priorities that was introduced in the 2022 revisions to the Highway Code. The idea is that the most vulnerable road users should be given priority over less vulnerable ones. Pedestrians, being slow-moving and easily broken, are at the top of the hierarchy. Cars are towards the bottom, just above HGVs.

The most notable way in which this hierarchy changes things is what happens when cars are turning into junctions. Pedestrians now don’t have to wait for cars that are turning into the road that they are crossing. Now it’s the other way round. If a pedestrian is plainly waiting to cross the road and you, in your car, are turning into that road, the Highway Code says you have to wait for them.

The problem is, a significant part of the driving population either isn’t aware of this change or doesn’t follow it. To recap on the RAC’s survey we reported last time:

  • 23% of drivers say they always give way.
  • 48% say they give way most of the time.
  • 19% say they don’t stop very often.
  • 6% say they never stop.

That’s a massive amount of non-compliance. But why? Here’s our attempt to break it down.

Motorists think the new hierarchy is unsafe

The RAC survey also asked motorists whether they thought the Highway Code changes made pedestrians safer:

  • Less than one in five thought pedestrians would be safer (18%).
  • About half (51%) were unsure.
  • 31% thought the changes made pedestrians less safe.

OK, it makes sense that you would ignore a rule if you thought it was unsafe. But that raises another question – why is it more unsafe for a pedestrian to have right of way when crossing a junction?

Judging from some of the comments we’ve seen on News sites, there seem to be two main arguments:

  • Pedestrians will become increasingly blasé about crossing the road and not look properly, because they believe they’re protected by the Highway Code.
  • Drivers behind you might be unaware that you’re slowing down for a pedestrian and plough into your vehicle – endangering you and the pedestrian.

We can absolutely understand those points of view, but here’s another take on it: is this rule that different to other road priority situations?

Other priority systems on roads

At a pedestrian crossing, you know that you must stop if someone looks like they’re about to cross  – and so do the cars behind. So everyone slows down in anticipation. Are pedestrians blasé about crossing the road in that situation? Some definitely are… maybe the same percentage that wouldn’t take any care stepping out at junctions?

Roundabouts have a priority system too: you know when you’re approaching that you may have to give way for a vehicle to your right. Again, you anticipate this, and so do the vehicles behind.

Of course, there could be real problems if you’re turning in from a fast road, or ones with limited visibility – so in some cases, it’s possible that the new hierarchy puts everyone at more risk. But on a bog-standard urban road with low speed traffic, perhaps the main safety problem is mainly informational and cultural. In other words, if you could get all motorists to understand and agree to the rule, maybe most of these safety issues would disappear.

And getting back to that cultural issue…

King of the Road syndrome?

See if this sounds familiar:

When you’re on foot, you’re irritated by drivers who won’t let you cross the road.

When you’re on your bike, you’re annoyed by drivers passing too close, tailgating you, and so on.

But as soon as you’re in the car, the boot is on the other foot. Pedestrians and bike riders are nuisances, impediments to your mission of galactic importance. As soon as you climb into the driver’s seat, you’re King of the Road.

Most of us are guilty of this at least a wee bit, and maybe it plays into this road hierarchy debate. For example, in a Microsoft News article about the highway code changes, this was the most-liked comment:

Not sure how pedestrians became top priority on a road. Last time I checked roads were for vehicles, pavements/footpaths were for pedestrians.

Others were clear what lay behind the change:

All part of the war on drivers we’ve been seeing lately.


Yet again this seems like another method of penalising the motorists,  they seem to be the easy option for a blame and shame woke society

And after all, if you’re paying for the roads, that gives you greater rights, right?

drivers… pay the most tax – on purchasing their car, road tax, fuel, insurance, parking

Is there just a whiff of entitlement here?

Things can only get better

Pretty obviously, rules of all sorts work better when everyone is singing from the same sheet. No matter the merits of a particular rule, it won’t get off the ground unless the vast majority are following it.

Optimistically, we think that this will gradually happen for the new road hierarchy. Once the majority of drivers – whether they agree with it or not – start following the hierarchy, it gets better for everyone.

That will take time. It took forever for seatbelt laws to be generally accepted, and drink-driving restrictions. Years after those changes, some drivers were claiming that seatbelts were inherently dangerous, and that they were better drivers after they’d had a few. Those arguments sound bonkers today – but will objections to the new road hierarchy go the same way? Only time will tell.

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