The Highway Code is changing: here is what you need to know

The Highway Code is changing: here is what you need to know

01 September 2021 | Kate Kozlowska | 10 min read

If you last studied the Highway Code when preparing for a driving test, perhaps it is time to do it again soon. Throughout the years, the smallest and biggest changes have trickled in, and now some more changes giving greater priority to pedestrians and cyclists over motorised vehicles are being proposed. The government hopes to publish them this autumn after they have been approved by parliament.

We have compiled a list of some of the most significant changes that are planned, correct some common misconceptions and bring you up to date on recent additions and updates to the Code.

Remember that where the terms 'must' and 'mustn't' are used in the Highway Code, the rules are legally binding while 'should' or 'shouldn't' are used for guidance only.

How is the Highway Code changing?

The Department for Transport (DfT) is proposing changes based on a concept called a "hierarchy of road users" to protect those most vulnerable - pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders, motorcyclists, and motorists are the most at-risk groups. The proposed changes to the Highway Code impose most responsibility on drivers for ensuring the safety of other road users. However, the DfT continues to state that every road user should be aware of his or her own safety as well as others.

"The changes address the concept of shared space on our roads,” explains Steve Garrod, head of continual professional development at the Driving Instructors Association. “More of us are sharing it, but too many drivers think it’s theirs and no one else’s. The new Code will give greater priority to cyclists and pedestrians, and drivers need to understand that.”

Cycling UK's head of campaigns, Duncan Dollimore, said: "The Highway Code should look to reinforce behaviour which reduces the danger we pose to other road users and protects those most at risk, so rules which place greater responsibility on people driving larger vehicles are long overdue. (...) While we all have responsibility for our own behaviour, a bus driver's failure to pay attention carries far greater risks to others than a pedestrian's, so of course, those in charge of larger vehicles should bear greater responsibility. (...) Hopefully, these changes will herald a change in attitude where the first question in any road safety conversation is how we reduce danger, not how people protect themselves from it."

Although the RAC supports the changes, it urges that they should be communicated properly to drivers so there is no confusion. “Unless people who have been used to approaching a junction in a particular way are properly informed, you risk a collision,” says Nicholas Lyes, head of roads policy at the organisation. “People should read the Code, but most don’t, so the government will need to make the changes clear.”

The planned changes to the Highway Code will:

• Ensure those road users who can cause the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger they may cause to others by creating road users hierarchy
• Increase pedestrian priority on pavements and at zebra crossings
• Provide guidance on passing distances and speeds, as well as ensuring that cyclists are given priority at junctions

Cycle campaigners have proposed that the "Dutch reach" method for opening vehicle doors is also included among the changes, in order to prevent cyclists from falling victim to open doors.

Key Highway Code changes proposals

Priorities at crossings and junctions

  • At a junction, you should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road into which you're turning or from which you're turning.
  • Pedestrians and cyclists waiting to cross a zebra crossing and parallel crossings should be given the right of way; however, you must give way if a pedestrian or cyclist has moved onto the crossing (this last rule is current).
  • Do not wave or horn at pedestrians or cyclists to let them cross; if another vehicle is approaching, this could cause a collision.
  • It is important to remain behind cyclists and motorcyclists at junctions, even if they are waiting to turn and are close to the kerb.
  • When you turn into or out of a junction, change lanes, or turn into or out of a junction, you should not cut across cyclists, just as you wouldn't turn across the path of another motor vehicle.
  • At a junction, don't turn if it would cause a cyclist going straight ahead to stop or swerve, just as you wouldn't with another vehicle.


  • When passing motorcyclists, cyclists, and horse riders, drivers must leave a minimum of 1.5 metres of space at speeds less than 30mph and 2.0 metres at speeds greater than 30mph, as well as at least 2.0 metres of space when passing pedestrians walking in the road. If it's not possible, the driver must wait.

Waiting and parking

  • Drivers and passengers should open the door with the hand furthest from the door they're opening.  By twisting their body, they can see over their shoulder and check for other road users.

Cyclists in relation to vehicles

  • Cyclists should ride in single file when vehicles wish to overtake them and it is safe for them to do so. On narrow lanes, two abreast is sometimes safer when riding in larger groups.
  • Cyclists should leave enough room (the width of a door or 0.5 metres) between them and parked vehicles so they will not be hit if a door opens unexpectedly.
  • If the traffic light is red, cyclists may cross the first stop line, but not the final stop line.
  • Cyclists can pass slower-moving or stationary traffic on both sides of the road.

What changed in the Highway Code in recent years?

2015 There is a change in the legal rule concerning objects being thrown out of a vehicle from shouldn't to mustn't. Also, in any car containing anyone under 18 years old, smoking becomes illegal (this rule doesn't apply to convertible vehicles with roof off).

2016 The above addition has been expanded to include Scotland.

2017 First aid information is added. Motorcycle helmets should not be removed and first aid kits should always be carried by all drivers.

2018 A new MOT test (more stringent diesel emissions, etc.) is presented, and learners can now drive on a motorway with a qualified instructor. Remote parking is also discussed, along with autonomous driving.

2019 Motorway red X signs are explained and further guidance is given.

2021 Fundamental changes are proposed to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists.

Common myths about the Highway Code

You must let buses out

A lot of confusion surrounds this issue, with even some driving instructors suggesting that a bus has the right to leave a stop after a number of cars refuse to let it out. It does not have such a right. Instead, the Code advises the drivers to give bus, coach, and tram drivers priority but only if it can be done safely.

You're not allowed to undertake

In spite of the Code stating drivers can't overtake on the left, it does state that, in heavy traffic, it's okay to overtake (read: undertake) cars that are travelling at a much slower speed than your lane.

It's okay to place your dog in the passenger seat

As the Code specifies, pets should be restrained appropriately in vehicles, using a harness, pet carrier, kennel or dog guard.

It is okay to drive off as long as the windscreen is clear of snow

According to the code, all snow that might fall into other road users' paths needs to be cleared.

You can break the law to allow the emergency vehicle through

As the Code requires you to take appropriate action, you should only do so while obeying all traffic signs.


We hope that this article helped you to stay updated on the Highway Code changes and familiarise yourself with the upcoming changes. Stay tuned and don't miss a thing again - follow us on Facebook for driving law updates, tips, advice, and of course, the hottest car and van leasing deals!

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