Cyclists, Roundabouts and the Highway Code

14 Feb 2019 | Stuart Kightley
roundabout in london

Table of Contents

The Highway Code is more than just a guide to how to pass your driving test. It is intended to be a comprehensive how-to manual on all things traffic, and it has the full force of the law. It is there to direct good and safe behaviour and to discourage and penalise bad and dangerous behaviour on our roads.

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So where the Code’s guidance says ‘must’ then that is a mandatory instruction, and to be in breach of it is to be on the wrong side of the law. If it says ‘should’ then that is a direction and to be in breach could still involve legal liability.

Cyclists, being vulnerable road users, look to the Highway Code for protection – for direction in how to conduct themselves as they ride so as to minimise the risk of injury and accident, and for direction to other road users to act considerately around cyclists to the same end.

It is in this context that we look at the rules concerning roundabouts.

A roundabout can be a dangerous place; at worst a Wild West of fast-moving traffic coming together from many different places and directions; a variety of lanes, lights, signs and configurations with cars, vans buses and lorries, all vying for space and jockeying for position.

The relative comfort of a cycle lane is not available in this environment and the cyclist has to take his or her chances on the merry-go-round.

So what advice does the rule book have to offer the cyclist?

The section on Rules for Cyclists at roundabouts starts with this opener:

‘You may feel safer walking your cycle round on the pavement or verge’.

Not only is this advice depressingly defeatist – why should a cyclist have to dismount at the first sight of a roundabout? – it is also of very dubious provenance.

Where is the research that shows that walking a roundabout is safer than cycling it? If the exits are not light controlled then the cyclist has to walk over the mouth of an exit with their bike in the face of traffic exiting the roundabout.

Drivers may be distracted by other vehicles on the roundabout and will likely be accelerating away; they will not expect to come across a person walking across the road.  If it is a two-lane roundabout exit it is all the more hazardous for the poor pedestrian-cyclist.

The section goes on with even worse advice:

‘If you decide to ride round keeping to the left-hand lane you should be aware that drivers may not easily see you, and take extra care when cycling across exits. You may need to signal right to show you are not leaving the roundabout’.

So when turning right at a roundabout a cyclist should stay in the left lane as they go past exits to their left and hope that by sticking out their right arm as they cross the path of exiting vehicles they will somehow avoid a collision.

Better advice would surely be to approach the roundabout in the right-hand lane, to clearly signal right and to stay in the middle of the right-hand lane of the roundabout until passing the exit before their turning.

But the main thrust of the Highway Code should be directed to motor vehicle drivers. It is they who usually cause accidents involving cyclists at roundabouts and it is their actions that need to be policed.

The Code is again woefully inadequate in the guidance it gives to these other road users:

‘Watch out for and give plenty of room to…cyclists…who may stay in the left-hand lane and signal right if they intend to continue round the roundabout. Allow them to do so.’

What is required instead is a recognition that cyclists are entitled to be in the right-hand lane, and that they will be travelling slower than motorised traffic; and also a requirement that drivers give priority to them on a roundabout, and do not overtake them.

This guidance should be mandatory (‘you must give priority to a cyclist on a roundabout’), so at least when a cyclist is knocked off by an inconsiderate driver they have the cold comfort of knowing the driver will be liable in a civil claim.

In fact, parliament could go a step further to protect cyclists on roundabouts to make it a criminal offence not to give precedence to a cyclist on a roundabout, in the same way, that a vehicle has to give precedence to a pedestrian on a crossing. In that way, the injured cyclist would have the additional comfort of knowing that the driver may be prosecuted and that the criminal law may serve to deter bad and dangerous driving at roundabouts.

But in the meantime the government review of the Highway Code announced in October 2018, should recognise that the Highway Code is there to promote road safety, not to compromise it, and to put at the top of its list of amendments the need to completely rewrite the section on cyclists and roundabouts.

You’re following two cyclists as they approach a roundabout in the left-hand lane. Where would you expect the cyclists to go?

Being in the left-hand lane usually suggests that road users intend to take the first exit to the left or proceed straight ahead to the next exit, depending on the roundabout’s design and signage. Cyclists, like all road users, should position themselves in the lane that corresponds to their intended exit, just as motor vehicles do.

However, it’s important for drivers to remember that cyclists might need extra space for safety and could position themselves differently to be more visible or to navigate the roundabout safely. Always give cyclists plenty of room, do not overtake them within the roundabout, and be prepared for them to take any exit. Watch for any signals they might give about their intended direction.

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