Road Safety Week 2022: An interview with Matt McFeat of PJA

9 Min Read

Road safety week 2022 is themed around celebrating the heroic work of our road safety professionals who dedicate their careers to making our roads safer for all.

This year has seen some really significant changes for UK roads with the introduction of a number of changes to the UK Highway Code. These changes came into effect on 29 January 2022 and stem from the recognition that the biggest responsibility for keeping road users safe lies with those users that can potentially cause the biggest harm to others.

Who is Matt McFeat?

We have taken this opportunity to have a chat with Matt McFeat, Associate Director at transport planning and engineering firm PJAwhose Chairman Phil Jones has been instrumental in the development of the changes to our highway code. Phil has been working closely with government and road safety charities to better understand what behaviour changes are needed to reduce the number of road traffic incidents.

The Highway Code changes came as the first step of a threefold intervention required to achieve this and to address ambiguities on the existing code, which could cause confusion on the right of way between different road user groups especially at junctions. The other steps that have been recommended include changing traffic sign regulations to better mark cycle routes and right of way, as well as introducing a “Universal Duty To Give Way” on turning depending on the type of road user at hand to ensure that specific behaviours will be legally required.

We have been really interested in understanding how these changes have affected the number of accidents since they were introduced nearly a year ago today, but it feels we are jumping the gun a bit as the data we have available is still quite limited. Instead, we used this opportunity to ask Matt a number of questions around the changes themselves but also how he envisages our roads will look in the future.

Q: With the progress of technology, we have seen a wider variety of vehicles using the roads in towns and country lanes including e-bikes and e-scooters. What are your views about the safety of these vehicles in the context of the new highway code and what can road users of more traditional vehicles do to help prevent accidents?

The Highway Code is very clear that those in charge of vehicles that can cause the greatest harm in the event of a collision bear the greatest responsibility to take care and reduce the danger they pose to others. This is true whether we are considering interaction between HGVs and e-scooters or between pedestrians and e-bikes. The common thread in the Highway Code is around giving each other sufficient space in order to reduce the likelihood of one person’s journey impacting on another’s.

The increase in micro-mobility options available to people is a positive thing, particularly where these journeys replace a car journey. Generally, travel by these modes is considered to be safe. A recent study by RoSPA found that e-scooter journeys are around five times safer per mile travelled than bikes, with many of the e-scooter collisions recorded outside of areas where official hire schemes exist.

The increase in micro-mobility use strengthens the case for greater investment in protected and separated infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists which will significantly reduce interaction between different transport modes improving safety for everyone.

Q: We think introducing the Dutch reach for drivers opening their door is a great way of reducing accidents but what is the reality of road users applying this rule in practise? Have you seen any stats or is it too soon to tell?

It is far too soon for the impact of the Dutch reach’s inclusion in the Highway Code to be seen, especially as there is up to a 21-month lag between accidents being recorded and the statistics being produced.

The act of opening a door into the path of someone cycling past can be fatal. Cycling UK research suggests that 60 people are killed or seriously injured in the UK each year as a result of dooring, with hundreds more people suffering more minor injuries. Cycling UK suggest that 35% of drivers admit to not looking for cyclists before opening their car doors, but I suspect many more people do not look or look well enough before opening a car door, so there is a massive potential to improve road safety through the promotion of this simple act.

The laws around ‘dooring’ type accidents are pretty clear with the Road Traffic Act 1988 stating that: “No person shall open, or cause or permit to be opened, any door of a vehicle on a road so as to injure or endanger any person.” It is clear that anything which reduces the likelihood of this happening in the UK has got to be positive.

In the Netherlands they have been using this method since at least the 1970s and there are now generations of people who have been taught this technique in school and by parents making it a lifelong habit which contributes to the Netherlands being one of the safest places to cycle in the world. It will likely take a significant amount of time before this becomes a commonsense habit in the UK, which means we all need to think carefully each time we open our car doors.

Q: Would you agree that it would be safer for cars to avoid overtaking cyclists altogether when something is coming the other way compared to just keeping the 1.5 metre rule?

This depends on the context, the width of the road, the number of lanes and the speed limit. However, most traffic lanes are around 3.3m wide. With a standard bike needing an envelope of at least 1m, and the Highway Code asking for a minimum clearance of 1.5m between the cyclist and the driver’s nearside mirror, this only leaves 80cm of the lane which can be used by a passing car which is around 2m wide. If you are not crossing the centreline of the carriageway when overtaking a cyclist, you are very likely to be passing too close and so drivers should almost always wait for a suitable gap in on-coming traffic before attempting to pass a cyclist. In urban areas, particularly within 20mph zones or at peak time, drivers should think carefully about whether they should overtake a cyclist at all. Often the cyclists will catch them up and pass the driver suggesting that the whole endeavour was pointless.

Personally, I will always wait until there isn’t any on-coming traffic before overtaking a person riding a bike. As someone who cycles to work regularly, I have a very good understanding of how scary and unsettling it can be when someone passes too close or passes in a way which introduces conflict within on-coming traffic.

Q: What do you think our roads will look like in 50 years from now?

It is perhaps better to ask what our towns and cities will look like in 50 years, rather than just the roads. Mobility shapes places, and over the last 100 years the take up of mass private motoring and subsequent increases in car ownership have shaped our built environments and changed our way of life. We are now far more aware of the societal and environmental costs of continued traffic growth and unrestricted access for private motor vehicle to our urban centres. I think that over the next 50 years we will see some of the more harmful urban planning decisions of the last century undone, such as the removal or down grading of inner-city ring roads, and the introduction of considered circulation plans which allow people to access town and city centres by a range of modes while removing through traffic.

I would hope that the streets of 2072 will be far more equitable. In our practice we seek to design new streets and places which are easy to travel around on foot or wheeling whether you are 8 or 80. There is currently a massive inequality in our built environment which means that some people don’t feel safe due to perceived or real dangers, and they are excluded from a range of travel choices. The Sustrans 2021 Walking and Cycling Index found that women were half as likely to have undertaken a journey by bike than men with one of the reasons being safety concerns.

The Vision Zero concept, pioneered in Sweden in 1997, puts human health at the centre of how we design and manage our roads and streets, and has been adopted by a number of cities across the world including London. The concept seeks to achieve zero avoidable deaths or serious injuries on the roads by 2040. The concept aims to achieve this by reducing the dominance of motor vehicles, designing danger out of the road network and promoting the development of safer vehicles.

The reallocation of road and parking spaces away from the car will reduce the volume and speed of traffic aligns with the Vision Zero aims and will improve road safety, enabling more people to travel by other modes and will make cities more pleasant places to live and work.

We would also expect the vehicles will continue to become safer, with greater use of technology to improve driving standards e.g. adherence to speed limits and a greater prevalence of systems to reduce the likelihood of collisions. More widely the impact of vehicles on public health and air quality is likely to improve with the transition to electric vehicles, although there is still an impact on air quality due to particulates produced by tyre and brake wear.

Speak with a road traffic accident claims expert

We are very excited to embrace some of the changes coming and we thank Matt for providing some insight.

At Enable Law, we work closely with charities, such as RoadPeace to reduce preventable catastrophic injury and fatalities linked to Road Traffic Accidents. If you would like a free and confidential discussion about how we can help you or a loved one following an RTA, please get in touch.