Cracking the code: celebrating 75 years of the Highway Code

It sells one million copies a year, and all of us who have taken our driving test have read it. Trouble is, we tend to forget the best practices. The Highway Code is about to be updated for a modern age as it celebrates its 75th birthday. Terry Kirby takes a trip down memory lane

It is one of Britain's most popular non-fiction books, sells around a million copies a year and has been in constant publication for more than seven decades.

And while countless people probably owe their lives to it, very few have read it from cover to cover and the names of its creator and current authors, are known only to a few.

This year, the Highway Code first published in 1931, celebrates its 75th anniversary.

It was born in an era when motoring was approaching its heyday, a time when driving was a stress-free, highly civilised, often glamorous activity and the glorious vista of the open road, still very much a reality.

The latest edition of the guide, due next year, will address an entirely different type of motoring universe - one of constant gridlock, of the guilt of environmental damage with every mile and where cars are driven by cruise control, guided by satellite navigation and a speed camera hides around every corner.

But despite the changes, the guide is still viewed as the essential companion to road use.

"It is a fundamental reference point," said Nigel Humphries, spokesman for the Association of British Drivers, while Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation adds: "It is a very British thing. No other country has anything like it."

Contrary to some beliefs, the guide is neither a comprehensive manual nor is it legally enforceable, although it does highlight basic elements of traffic law.

It is an essential purchase before a driving test, more so since the introduction of the theory part of the test during the 1990s.

"It is simply a guide to good driving," said Mr King, adding: "Although much has changed since it was first published, at one level things have not changed that much, because so many things, like signs, have remained the same." But he acknowledged that most people rarely look at it once they have passed the test and almost nobody carries it around in their cars. "Maybe they should," he suggested.

Ironically, the Highway Code was originally the brainchild of someone more concerned with the growing field of aviation, than the more prosaic matter of the motor car. Mervyn O'Gorman, considered one of Britain's greatest aeronautical designers following work at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough during the Second World War, was, in the late 1920's, a member of the Royal Automobile Club's motoring committee; he later became vice-president of the Club.

By this time, the growing popularity of motoring had led to more than 2.3 million cars on the road, which were causing a record 7,000 deaths among the population. Although cars had been around in increasing numbers since the 1890's very little had been done to legislate or control their use and the Government was under pressure to act.

In 1930, it introduced the Road Traffic Act, which, for the first time, set out a variety of speed limits for different classes of vehicle. At the same time, RAC members led by O'Gorman, conceived a simple code for all road users, giving a series of essential do's and don'ts.

The Government took up the idea and the first edition, written in the brisk officialese, sold for just one old penny. It contained just 18 pages of basic advice - compared to almost 100 in the current version.

Much of the guide was given over to hand signals, then considered to be the primary issue for road users in the days before indicators were universal: "Extend the right arm and hand, with the palm turned to the front and hold them rigid in a horizontal position straight out from the off side of the vehicle" was the advice when turning right. There was also a section devoted to horse-drawn vehicles, including advice on how to rotate a whip above your head to indicate which direction the vehicle was about to turn.

Today, with more than 27 million cars, the number of deaths is under half of that 7,000. While changes in laws, technology and British Summer Time must also have played their part, the Highway Code, by raising public awareness of the dangers of driving, can probably be said to have saved millions, of lives.

Later editions of the Code would be issued every few years. While they reflected changes in technology, traffic management and road safety, they also mirrored social developments such as rising crime and the use of mobile phones. In 1946, although petrol rationing was still in force, the new Labour Government decided the time was right for a new edition of the Code. The road signs showed just 15, of which only two are still in use, compared to around 170 in the current edition.

Stopping distances made their appearance in the third edition, telling drivers they required: 40ft at 20mph, 75ft at 30mph and so on. Despite advances in braking technology, the distances are exactly the same in the current Code - apart from the fact that the measurements are now also given in metres and the top speed of the table is 70mph, rather than 50mph. Edmund King of the RAC Foundation believes this is one of the Code's most important legacies: "I think it is the best bit of advice in the Code. Tailgating is still a huge problem and the toll for accidents would be cut dramatically if we could curb tailgating."

The 1954 Code was the first to be issued with modern colour illustrations and although the price remained at one penny, by now the hand symbols for horse-drawn vehicles had disappeared and a total of 31 different road signs were illustrated. By the late 1950's the fifth edition was the first to include advice on driving on the new motorways and guidance on how to avoid drowsiness. Photographs and 3D illustrations came in the sixth edition, published in 1968, while the 1978 Code introduced the Green Cross Code for pedestrians and a section on vehicle security, prompted by soaring car theft rates. In the 1990s, the Code included a section on the new theory part of the driving test and the current, 1999 edition, warns against mobile phone use while driving.

This month, the Driving Standards Agency has launched a consultation exercise on the next edition, due out next year. Among other changes it proposes a warning to drivers to switch off their engines while stationary to reduce fuel emissions and a caution to those who favour blacked out windows - commonly used by both drug-dealers and celebrities - that these must conform to certain limits to ensure visibility. Aware of the advances in new technologies, there is also planned advice to drivers about being distracted by satellite-navigation systems: "Do not be distracted by maps or screen-based information (such as navigation or vehicle management systems) while driving." It adds: "Do not rely on driver assistance systems such as cruise control or lane departure warnings."

Similarly, the Code has reacted to current accident trends by including proposed advice on "mini-motos" (for off-road use only) and the use of powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters for the elderly and disabled (stick within the official, very low limits). Despite seeking publicity for its consultation exercise, the Agency was unable yesterday to say exactly who had inherited Mr O'Gorman's mantle as the drafter of the modern-day Code. "It will be a group of officials, but I'm sure there is someone in charge," was all a spokesman could offer.

Bizarrely, although the 1931 Code was published at the very peak of the nations' addiction to cigarettes, it is only now, as smoking wanes in popularity, that the latest edition proposes cautioning motorists about smoking while driving.

And who knows, perhaps future editions, as the car becomes increasingly vilified and the petrol dries-up, will reflect the switch to greener methods of transport - and see the return of those hand signals for horses.

Then and now: take the test

1931 EDITION:

1 What should drivers do with their whips?

2 If a driver flapped his wrist out of the window, what did this indicate?

3 How did motorists indicate an intention to overtake?

1954:

4 What was indicated by the road sign that shows a flaming torch?

5 What was the "wrong" side of the road?

6 What is the difference between the stopping times for 50mph in the 1954 edition and the present day?

2006:

7 If you are a walking along a pavement or footpath, what should you take care to do?

8 What should cyclists wear?

9 Can you take a mobile phone call while driving at 30mph in a built-up area?

Answers

1 Drivers should "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." This, of course, applies to horse-drawn vehicles only.

2 In those days, it was the hand signal for stopping: "Extend the right arm with the palm of the hand turned downwards and move the arm slowly up and down, keeping the wrist loose."

3 By beeping their horn.

4 Not an Olympic stadium or "arsonists at work". For many years, this was the sign indicating a school was nearby.

5 According to the 1954 Code, motorists were not allowed to "park at night on the 'wrong' side of the road". While the Code offers no guidance as to what the "wrong" side is, parking facing against the traffic direction was once discouraged.

6 Actually, there isn't one. Despite all the changes in motoring technology over the previous half century, the answer then - 175 feet - is exactly the same as now, except that now it is given in metric - 53m - first.

7 The Code says that, where possible, avoid walking next to the kerb with your back to the traffic.

8 Tight Lycra shorts are, apparently, the thing to wear: "Avoid clothes which may get tangled in the chain or in a wheel, or may obscure your lights."

9 The Code says: "You must not use a hand-held mobile phone, or similar device, when driving or when supervising a learner driver."

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