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The Highway Code

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Anybody who drives a car in the UK must, at the time of their driving test, demonstrate at least a nodding acquaintance with the Highway Code. It is a book published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, a quaintly-named body which exists to charge us money for the privilege of reading documents whose preparation we have already paid for.

The Highway Code documents the rules by which all road users must abide. It tells you which things you should not do, and which you may not lawfully do. And, judging by the behaviour of most motorists, the knowledge demonstrated at the driving test is forgotten as swiftly and as completely as is humanly possible.

The Law

The Highway Code is not law, but it does include many points of law (denoted by the word must in bold type). And failing to observe the code, while not in itself an offence, may be taken as evidence of 'driving without due care', a catch-all charge covering the many types of blithering stupidity perpetrated by road users.

In law, of course, ignorance is no defence, so even if you haven't read the Highway Code for 20 years you can still be prosecuted for new offences.

A more serious point underlies this: many motorists are guilty of a fundamental lack of attention. We talk, make phone calls, smoke, tune the radio and unwrap sweets as we drive along - all things which take our attention from the road. At 56mph a car covers 25m every second - in the time it takes to change tapes you might travel over 100m. At night, on dipped headlights, you can see about 75m. That means you can't afford to take your eyes off the road at all, because the distance you can see to be clear is about the same as your stopping distance. And you should know all this because it's all in the Highway Code. If people don't even know how dangerous their behaviour is, they won't change it.


Every now and then a new version is published - for example, there was an update in 1999. Drivers in their millions failed to buy updated copies, despite the fact that it contained new and revised rules against which their driving performance would be judged.

Older versions of the Highway Code said 'do not park within 15 feet of a road junction'. Now, it says ten metres (over 30 feet). The distance you have to leave clear has doubled, and nobody knows because they haven't bought the new Code. And nobody cares because, of course, the rule can't possibly apply if you are only stopping to buy the paper from the corner shop, can it?

The reasons people do not buy new copies of the Highway Code are complex, but probably fall into the following categories:

  • Ignorance - Many people do not know that there is a new Highway Code because their memory of the last one they saw is so dim that the radically different appearance of the book in the 'New Highway Code!' bin at the bookshop fails to register.

  • Arrogance - Most, if not all, drivers think they are safe and expert1, a misconception whose inaccuracy is amply demonstrated by the fact that motorists have, since the invention of the car, killed more people than all the wars fought everywhere in the world during the same period.

  • Stupidity - People think that the rules which applied when they obtained their license, still apply now. Wrong. There have been large numbers of changes, major and minor. Variable speed limits, red routes, Gatsos2, Totting-Up3 and four separate types of pedestrian crossing have all appeared since the average 40-year-old passed their test.

  • Idleness - It is too much effort to find out if the laws which affect you have changed.


Research shows that those who obey the rules are less likely to crash than those who don't4. It also shows that 95% of collisions are due to driver error, although the ability of people to assume that this always means the other driver should not be underestimated. Road fatalities in many countries are falling due to improved vehicle safety - seat belts, anti-lock brakes etc, but this has a knock-on effect in further declining standards of driving, as the personal risk of bad driving is seen as very low. One motoring journalist has speculated that driving standards might well improve considerably if all cars were fitted with a sharp steel spike in the centre of the steering wheel.

There is a commonly-held belief that driving a car is a right. It is a belief supported by the risible punishments handed out to those who kill or maim in their cars. An example: a woman killed a cyclist. She already had 12 points on her license (so had repeatedly proved herself an unsafe driver), and a single extra point would have resulted in a ban. The court took the view that a ban would be too inconvenient, as it would mean she had to walk a mile each way to take her children to school. A repeat offender killed someone through their consistently poor driving, and they were allowed to drive home from the court with just a small fine. This is probably not a good way to encourage higher driving standards.

Nonetheless, there are rules and we should obey them. You have no excuse, follow the link at the top of the entry and update your knowledge now.

1Research by the Transport Research Laboratory found that over three quarters of drivers fall into the categories 'dissociated/passive' (drive slowly but haven't a clue what's going on around them), 'dissociated/active' (drive more aggressively, still no idea what's going on around them, likely to brake sharply when a car comes the other way, even though it's on the other side of the road) and 'injudicious' (just plain dreadful).2Speeding cameras.3Motoring transgressions can be punished by the addition of points to the license. When the number reaches a magic value under the process known as 'totting-up', you automatically lose your license for a period.4Although the sample of drivers who obey the rules these days is probably not statistically significant.

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