The first ever Highway Code, published back in 1931, included advice to drivers of horse drawn vehicles 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.’   

Clearly a lot has changed in the past 88 years. Here we consider 10 ways that code has moved with the times, and how that reflects on driving and the safety of our roads.

1. Roads have got busier, but safer 

Back in 1931, there were just 2.3 million motor vehicles in Great Britain, compared to more than 38 million now. Yet road accidents have thankfully fallen significantly; over 7,000 people were killed in road accidents each year when the code was first introduced, while there were 1,770 road deaths in the UK in 2018.

2. Road signs have come of age

The first edition made no reference to road signs or stopping distances. Diagrams of 10 road signs first made it into the second edition, while stopping distances were introduced in the third edition. 

Now there are dozens of road signs – so many that you may struggle to identify them all

3. Learning to drive has become more testing

Back when the original code was first published, driving tests weren’t even compulsory; that didn’t happen until four years later.

Now, knowing its contents is vital to passing your practical and theory driving tests.

4. Mirrors have become an essential tool 

It’s hard to imagine driving without mirrors. But in the 1931 edition of the code, mirrors were not even mentioned and drivers were advised to sound their horn when overtaking.

Now using your mirrors is an essential part of driving, which is described in detail in the code.

5. The code has grown and grown

The code has got bigger and bigger, from 18 pages of advice initially to 152 pages and growing. This reflects an increased focus on road safety over the years.

6. Pedestrian safety has become more complicated

In the early days, crossing the road safely was covered in one paragraph. Now, there are details on everything from crossing bus and cycle lanes to tactile paving, the raised surfaces that provide warning and guidance to blind or partially sighted people.

7.  Some rules may surprise you

Such is the detail of today’s Highway Code, that it includes rules and guidance many people may not be aware of. Did you know, for example, there are five types of reflective road studs? Or to ‘never use a hand-held microphone when driving’? Or that on organised walks you should position look-outs at the front and back of the group?

8. Hand signals still make the cut

More than a third of the original booklet described the various hand signals the police and road users should use. Perhaps surprisingly to younger drivers, today’s code still makes a brief reference to the use of signals, suggesting road users ‘use an arm signal to emphasise or reinforce’ other types of signals if necessary.

9. There are more warnings for drivers

Warnings about the dangers of drink driving have been included since the second edition of the code. 

Now, there are also warnings about mobile phone use, driving under the influence of drugs and the risks of not buckling up.

10. The spirit of the code remains unchanged

Despite all the changes in the code, the way we drive and the safety of our roads, the spirit of the code remains unchanged.

It was originally introduced as "a code of good manners to be observed by all courteous and considerate persons" and urged drivers to put safety first. The code now starts by saying: "It is important that all road users are aware of The Highway Code and are considerate towards each other. This applies to pedestrians as much as to drivers and riders". 

So, when was the last time you picked up a copy of the Highway Code?

Even though you can now read it for free online, many drivers haven’t read it for years. In a poll of over 22,000 drivers by Halfords Autocentres, one in five (20%) confessed that it has been at least 10 years since they last read the Code.

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