How the Highway Code has evolved over time

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The Highway Code was first introduced and published in 1931, and there have been significant changes to the roads, cars, and drivers since then. At the time of initial release, there were only 3.1 million cars on the road throughout the UK.

Since then, we’ve only seen more cars join the road and at the end of September 2022 alone, 33.2 million cars were registered and now travel up and down the country. The Highway Code has had to adjust to account for all the new vehicles and the various changes to the roads over time.

The changes have been significant since the first edition that you could buy for a single penny. In this article, Jardine Motors takes a look at some of the evolutions that have changed driving habits.

The first edition

Before we look at how it’s changed, we must first look at the origins of the Highway Code. With the infancy of knowledge around motor vehicles at the time, the physical copy was only 18 pages in its first edition. As we currently know it, it’s over 150 pages of rules and legislation.

Alongside the regulations laid out in the debut version, it’s also the only version to ever have advertisements adorning the pages. The ads in question were for the likes of insurance and recovery brands like the AA and the RAC, as well as petrol providers like BP.

Early adjustments

During the 1930s and into the early ‘40s, there were some important amendments made that remain key parts of motoring to this day. One of the most notable is the introduction of the Road Traffic Act 1934. This was an addition to the Code that implemented the 30mph speed limit in built-up areas such as high streets and city centres.

1934 also saw the announcement that new drivers would be required to take a driving test to ensure they were prepared and safe to be behind the wheel of a vehicle. This wouldn’t come into effect until the following year in 1935, and the first man to ever pass his test was Mr R. Beere.

Signage, driver conditions, and motorway speed limits

Another major addition to the Highway Code was the inclusion of road signs in the second edition. Signs were still in black and white and there were only 10 in total – it wouldn’t be until the third edition in 1954 for it to be released in colour.

The second edition also included references to driving conditions such as warnings around tiredness and being under the influence of alcohol. This is the first time mentions of impairment and the strict punishments appeared in the Code.

The Highway Code’s fifth edition was released in 1961 and had a major update for road users surrounding motorways. Motorways were beginning to emerge with the Preston bypass as the first one opened in 1958 and later became part of the M6. Not only was did road users have to be introduced to how to use slip roads, but motorways didn’t have an official speed limit.

Motorists aimed to hit 100mph as a badge of honour, which was then addressed with the introduction of the 70mph national speed limit. Our approach to safety has changed!

The Theory Test

The Driving Theory Test is recent addition in the history of motoring legislation in the UK, with its required passing mark of at least 43/50.

It came into effect in 1990 for aspiring drivers to take and understand the theory behind driving and being aware of pedestrians. More than 30 years since it was introduced, it is still a necessity to take before you can even apply for the practical part of your test.

The Highway Code has had many changes in its history and is still getting updated to this day as our understanding of road and traffic safety evolves and grows. What may apply to a driver of a 1960s classic Jaguar E-Type will not apply to the drivers of a used Jaguar E-Pace today. The priority of driving is keeping motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians safe whether it’s yourself or those around you, so keeping up to date with what’s being added is an important part of everyday road safety.

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