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The Highway Code

A new RAC report warns that the Highway Code, regarded by many as the ‘driver’s bible’, is due for an update. Previously such updates have tended to signal watershed moments in our motoring history where new laws, technologies and much more have drastically changed how we’re all expected to drive.

UK Highway Code Signs

This upcoming new version will continue that tradition and will potentially include clarification on some of the confusion surrounding our so-called smart motorways.

Highway Code History

To find the 18-page first edition of the Highway Code which cost one penny, you must look back in time to 1931. The 1930s was remembered by some as a ‘golden age’ of motoring, and the adverts in that first copy included Castrol Motor Oil, The Motorcycle magazine, Motor Union Insurance, plus the AA and RAC services – these brands certainly evoke strong images of those gentler times.

Motor vehicles evolved from horse and carriage transport, so it’s no surprise the 1931 Code still thought it wise to advise drivers of horse-drawn vehicles on how to signal a change of direction: ‘rotate the whip above the head; then incline the whip to the right or left to show the direction in which the turn is to be made.’

The car insurance policy dates to 1896 in the UK, it was the 1930 ‘Road Traffic Act’ that made insurance compulsory for all motor vehicles.

Not only did the new Act have insurance cover implications for motorists, but it also changed the situation for the motor trade, as anyone selling vehicles, repairing, and road-testing them, or providing other motoring service is required to hold a Motor Trade insurance policy.

Road Safety Matters

New drivers taking a test must be familiar with the Code, which is one reason The Highway Code still sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year, yet some drivers will still remind you this bestseller is not the law. Now although that is strictly true for pub-quiz purposes, most of the Code’s ‘advice’ is actually backed up by UK traffic laws.

Perhaps more importantly, it is a book which continues to shape the character and tone of road safety advice – an influence which can rightly claim to have saved many thousands of lives.

According to the government’s Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, when the Highway Code was first published in 1931, there were only 2.3 million motor vehicles on the roads of Great Britain.

Even so, in every year it was common for over 7,000 people to perish in road accidents.

Today, the roads in the UK carry 27 million vehicles, yet according to our national statistics, the death toll for 2019 was just 1,752 – an annual figure which has been largely static since 2012.

Modern Concerns

Announcing the 2021 upgrade, Highways England head of road safety Jeremy Phillips said: “The updates to The Highway Code will help everyone who uses our busiest roads,” and went on to add, “… we have been able to produce clearer guidance on how to use our motorways and major A-roads, which will make journeys even safer.”

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The improvements address many modern road-safety bugbears such as tailgating, reckless towing, unroadworthy cars and driving while tired. But it is features such as clarification about some of today’s new traffic management initiatives, and smart ‘all lanes running’ motorways in particular, which are most likely to grab the attention of interested motorists and road users.

The smart-traffic guidance will cover variable speed limits, safety camera information and ‘red X’ lane closures, as well as warning signs to change lanes and advice about the increasingly flexible status of motorway hard shoulder lanes which must occasionally accommodate live traffic flows.

SOS emergency refuge areas are mentioned in connection with Highways England’s “Go left” campaign (March 2021), which should make it much easier for drivers to understand how and where to stop if they are faced with an emergency.

So, let us hope the Code overhaul and all its modern updates can ease the stress of all drivers, especially when a breakdown occurs many miles from the nearest motorway junction.