Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The book that rewrote the rules of the road


This article of mine appears in the Daily Express.

IT'S the book that has probably saved more lives in Britain than any other.

 
But it’s also a publication that has sent generations of nervous driving-test hopefuls into a cold sweat. It was exactly 80 years ago in April 1931 that the Ministry of Transport first published its “code of directions for the guidance of road users” – better known as the Highway Code. Since then the Code has sold hundreds of thousands of copies every year, making it one of the best-selling publications of all time.


The preamble of the very first Highway Code – which cost just one old penny – said the book was “intended as a supplementary guide to the proper use of the highway, and as a code of good manners, to be observed by all courteous and considerate persons”. Such guidance was sorely needed in 1931. Back then it was very much a free-for-all on Britain’s roads and casualty rates were staggeringly high. In 1931 there were just over one million cars on the road in Britain yet more than 7,000 people were killed in road accidents.


Until 1930, when a minimum driving age of 17 was introduced, there were no regulations as to who could drive a car. Compulsory driving tests were only introduced in 1935 and even then only for new drivers. In the absence of speed limits for vehicles carrying fewer than seven people, drivers invariably went as fast as their cars could travel. And pedestrians were seen as obstacles who got in the way. “In an accident it was the driver, not the person killed, who was felt to have had ‘bad luck’ and the pedestrian was often condemned for his obstinacy in being on the road at all,” wrote the historian AJP Taylor.


It was an attempt to change this thinking – and encourage more sensible driving – that lay behind the introduction of the Highway Code. The first edition illustrates how Britain was much less urbanised in the early Thirties than it is today. “Be ready to stop when meeting a flock of sheep or a pack of hounds” is the advice on page nine. Eighty years ago there were still about 50,000 horse-drawn vehicles on the roads in Britain and in the first Highway Code advice was given to drivers of these vehicles on how to turn: “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.”

Before indicators came along motorists were given special guidance on hand signals. As for overtaking, there was no mention in the 1931 Code of checking mirrors: drivers were instead advised to sound their horn. And tramcars, it was noted, “may be overtaken on either side”. Over the years the new editions of the Highway Code reflected the development of motoring in Britain. The second edition contained the first pictures of road signs. In the third edition stopping distances were included for the first time.


In 1954 the Highway Code, now with colour illustrations, contained the first triangular warning signs. And it was at the end of that decade that perhaps the most revolutionary change to motoring in Britain occurred – the opening of the first motorway. The 1961 Highway Code – costing six old pence, included a special section on motorway driving and a picture of a car on a motorway on its front cover. By this time, there were more than 10 million cars on Britain’s roads.


In 1996 the Highway Code became an even more important document for learner drivers as a separate written theory test was introduced, replacing the questions asked about the Code by the examiner. Today’s Highway Code, which carries 130 pages of advice and costs £2.50, is a far cry from the first document of 80 years ago. In 1931 smoking was considered acceptable everywhere, the latest Code by contrast includes advice against smoking when driving on the grounds that it constitutes a “distraction”, as well as being illegal in certain vehicles.


And today’s slick and glossy document is not just available as a book but as a CD-ROM and in an online format from the DirectGov website. The biggest change over the past 80 years is in the nature of motoring itself. Today there are about 31 million cars on the road compared to just over one million in 1931. Yet the fatality rate is less than a third of that 80 years ago. There have been many improvements in road safety since 1931 brought about by such developments as cat’s eyes in 1934 and the introduction of the MOT test in 1960.


But the Highway Code has played a major part too. “Its long-standing success,” says road safety minister Mike Penning, “is one of the reasons Britain’s roads are among the safest in the world.” For a book that originally cost only a penny that’s no mean achievement.

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