Proposed changes to the Highway Code to improve safety for vulnerable road users will have limited effect without supportive legislation, according to claimant law firm Pedestrian Law Scotland.

The UK Government recently announced a consultation seeking views on changes to benefit in particular cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders. The main alterations involve creating a hierarchy of road users to ensure that those who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger they pose; clarification on pedestrian priority on pavements and advising that drivers and riders should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road; guidance on cyclist priority at junctions; and establishing safe passing distances when overtaking cyclists and horse riders.

Brenda Mitchell and Jodi Gordon, partners at Pedestrian Law Scotland, describe the changes as welcome and long overdue, but comment: "The creation of a hierarchy with pedestrians at the top is a positive step forward, but such tinkering with the Highway Code is a wasted opportunity unless there is appropriate legislation sitting alongside."

They add: "We've all been told to cycle and walk more as part of the Government’s drive to tackle obesity and improve the general health of the nation. However, the fundamental problem is that people will not engage if they do not feel safe and such fears regarding their safety are justified."

The two lawyers see a "worrying trend" in provisional figures for 2019 road traffic casualties in Scotland, released at the end of July: while the overall number of casualties (7,594) was down by 10%, fatal incidents increased by seven to 168 and the number of serious injuries by over 400 to 2,001. Casualties included a "significant rise" in the death and serious injury of vulnerable road users, with pedestrian fatalities up 13 to 46 compared with 2018, and 22 more cyclists seriously injured, at 178.

"Why is there no immediate call to action?" they ask. "Without changes to the law, it is difficult to get consistency from the courts when it comes to civil proofs."

Calling on the Government be less hesitant in following European countries in protecting the vulnerable, they claim: "We will never increase safe active travel until the Scottish Government is brave enough to leave Westminster in its path and wake up to the reality of the statistics. The leap forward we need is presumed liability and the hierarchy the proposed updates to the Highway Code have highlighted. Pedestrians are the most vulnerable of all road users and need most protection. Along with cyclists, it's all about safe active travel."