A Brief History of the Highway Code

By Lewis on 26th August 2019 - View Comments

You might remember that a few weeks ago, we published a post on some commonly forgotten rules in the Highway Code. The density of the document – with over 307 individual rules as of 2019 – might make you wonder when exactly it all started, and what people did before the Code existed!

Well, that’s the subject of this week’s post. Settle in for a history lesson…

The Beginning

The first edition of the Highway Code was published in 1931, though its origins can be traced back to 11 years earlier. That was the point where the government, spurred on by RAC Vice President Mervyn O’Gorman, announced a plan to create “a compulsory and uniform code of signals for all road vehicles”. It was modelled off a successful system created by drivers in London. Driving licences had existed for 32 years before this point, but by 1931 the number of drivers had risen from 1 million to 3 million. This underlined the need for a full set of laws.

The publication of a full code was delayed for several years as additions were made, but in 1923 a booklet titled “Traffic Signals to be used by the Police and Drivers of Vehicles” was released. It covered exactly what the name implies.

By the time the full code was published, it amounted to just 18 pages of advice. It cost one old penny, and was the only edition to carry advertisements. Though many of its rules are outdated now, with their references to horse-drawn vehicles needing to “rotate the whip above the head; then incline the whip to the right or left to show the direction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” – a surprising amount hasn’t changed. One rule that features in both the first and latest Code is that all road users must be careful and considerate towards others, putting safety first.

Expanding and Changing

More of the things that modern drivers take for granted were added in subsequent editions. The second edition of the Code in 1934 marked the first appearance of road sign diagrams (of which there were only 10), alongside still-wise advice about the effects of driving while drunk or fatigued.

Information about stopping distances was only included from 1946’s third edition onwards. This also included unique advice for cyclists.

The 1954 edition of the Highway Code saw a big cosmetic revamp – it was printed in colour for the first time, and the back cover contained guidance on first aid. The section on traffic signs was also expanded, containing the first triangular warning signs.

The fifth edition came along just as motorways became a fixture of Britain’s driving experience, and so included much more advice on how to deal with them. It also explained slip roads and gave more advice on handling drowsiness while driving.

The 1978 edition also responded to the changing nature of our roads; alongside the first appearances of orange badges for people with disabilities, and the now-renowned Green Cross Code, the Code also detailed vehicle security in the wake of rapidly rising car crime.

The introduction of the written theory test in 1996 called for an entire section devoted to it in the Code’s next edition. Later editions accounted for the growing popularity of mobile phones.

Where are we now?

The Highway Code was never intended to be a static document. In the last few years, not only has its content changed, but the way it’s been distributed has too: 2011 saw the Highway Code joining Facebook and Twitter, and the next year a Highway Code app was launched. Both allowed for more convenient learning.

One common criticism of the Highway Code is that few drivers actually utilise it outside of their theory test. However, it almost certainly makes our roads safer, and hopefully will continue to do so for years to come.

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