The Untold Story of the Highway Code

The British Highway Code – ‘…a guide to the proper use of the highway and a code of good manners…’ – celebrates the 90th anniversary of its first publication in 2021.

Here we look back at the evolution of the Code which tells the story of the development of road safety, driving and British roads over the decades.

The early years of driving

Cover of the first Highway Code, brown with 'The Highway code, issued by the Minister of Transport with the authority of Parliament in pursuance of Section 45 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930.'
Cover of the first Highway Code, published by the Ministry of Transport, 1931. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

The first Highway Code cost one old penny and contained 21 pages of advice and information. It carried adverts for the RAC (founded 1897), AA (founded 1905), Castrol Motor Oil, BP Plus petrol, motor insurance and journals such as ‘Autocar’.

Pages 18 and 19 of the 1931 Highway Code illustrating examples of hand signals: how to signal you are slowing down and turning left (man waving arm in car), second graphic is a man waving right arm to turn right, third graphic is man waving arm low to signal overtaking, four graphic is a man signalling he is stopping.
Pages 18 and 19 of the 1931 Highway Code illustrating examples of hand signals to be used by drivers of pre-indicator motor cars and horse-drawn vehicles. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

The late 19th century saw the first motorcars in Britain – a country whose roads had evolved for horse-drawn traffic.

Two Vauxhall cars photographed in London in 1931. The lead vehicle dates from 1895; the one behind from 1930. Image via Creative Commons

In the early years of the 20th century anyone could drive a vehicle – the minimum driving age of 17 was not introduced until 1930.

When the Highway Code was first launched in 1931, there were 2.3 million motor vehicles on British roads, along with tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicles.

To be on the road was glamorous. Drivers put their foot down. Pedestrians were often considered in the way; at fault if they became a casualty. In this dangerous heady world, around 7,000 people lost their lives in accidents every year. (By comparison, in 2019, there were over 40 million vehicles on British roads and 1,870 deaths).

Content of the Highway code: To all users of the highway, to the drivers, to motor cyclists, to drivers of horse-drawn vehicles, persons in charge of animals, cyclists, and pedestrians.
The Highway Code, 1931, listing the contents. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Little had been done in terms of control or legislation. The Highway Code of 1931 was a first attempt to educate early motorists about driving carefully and responsibly.

Speed limits, driving tests and pedestrian crossings

Images of cars in a cigarette card album
An image for W.D & H.O. Wills ‘SAFETY FIRST’ cigarette card album, published in 1934 around the same time as the second edition of the Highway Code and the new 1934 Road Traffic Act. The cover states that the album contains ‘…a series of Cigarette Cards of National Importance…’ The forward was written by the then Minister of Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Leslie Hore-Belisha’s 1934 Road Traffic Act introduced a 30mph speed limit in built-up areas (the speed limit of 20mph had been controversially removed by the 1930 Road Traffic Act after it was universally flouted and court cases built up). There were also stronger penalties for reckless driving and cyclists were required to have rear reflectors.

In addition, the Act instituted a compulsory driving test that came into force in 1935, but only for new drivers. Around one quarter of a million candidates applied.

The first driver to pass the half hour test of basic driving abilities and knowledge of the Highway Code was a Mr R. Beare of Kensington, 16 March 1935. Tests were suspended four years later for the duration of the Second World War (1939-1945), not resuming until 1946.

Portrait photo of Minister of Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha
Minister of Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha, who rewrote the Highway Code (second edition, 1934), and introduced pedestrian crossings as part of the Act. Image in the Public Domain.

9,000 pedestrian crossings, with their distinctive flashing yellow globes (‘Belisha’ beacons), were erected in London in 1934, with the scheme extended to the provinces in the November. Initially crossings were marked with steel studs; zebra markings not appearing until 1949.

Abbey Road zebra crossing
Abbey Road zebra crossing, London, made famous on the cover of the Beatles’ final album: ‘Abbey Road’ (26 September 1969), with the band walking across it. Listed Grade II. Public Domain
Traffic light with green and red lights only
Early traffic light which only displayed red and green lights, Castle Hill, Newport, Isle of Wight © Historic England DP068811

Other early road developments included white lines, which came into widespread use in the 1920s, prototype roundabouts and traffic lights dating from around the mid to late 1920s (the red/amber/green traffic light system began to be more widely adopted from 1933), and ‘catseyes’, patented in 1934, which came into their own during the blackouts of the Second World War and have been a common feature of roads ever since.

Early Road Signs

The second edition (1934) of the Highway Code also carried diagrams of road signs for the first time – just 10 in all – along with a warning about the dangers of driving when affected by alcohol or fatigue.

‘What Does That Road Sign Mean?’ – an illustration in a vintage journal
‘What Does That Road Sign Mean?’ – an illustration in a vintage journal of all the official Ministry of Transport road signs in the late 1930s. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Stopping distances – broadly similar to today’s, despite huge advances in braking technology – made their first appearance in the third edition, published just post-war in 1946, along with new sections giving advice on driving and cycling.

The 1954 Highway Code carried brand new colour illustrations. There was an expanded traffic sign section which included an extended section on road signs, while the back cover gave instructions about first aid.

The first motorway

Cover of the official Preston bypass launch brochure, 5 December 1958. Image courtesy of Lancashire County Council.

England’s first completed motorway, a revolutionary development in British roads – the 8 mile Preston bypass, later part of the M6 – was opened by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan in 1958.

A woman fills up their car at a service station on the M1
Filling up at a service station on the newly opened M1. Image © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection, JLP01/08/055782

The first 50 mile stretch of the M1 – from St Albans to Rugby – opened a year later in 1959, constructed by world-renowned contractors John Laing & Sons, who built much of post-Second World War Britain’s pioneering infrastructure, including housing, nuclear power stations, hospitals, factories and London’s Westway.

Vintage copy of the 1961 Highway Code
Cover of a vintage copy of the 1961 Highway Code illustrating a motorway scene at the bottom. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes

To reflect how motorways would radically affect motorists, the 1961 Highway Code was updated in its fifth edition with a section on motorway driving, including how to avoid drowsiness.

Minister of Transport Ernest Marples’s plea to drivers to be more careful on the roads
Minister of Transport Ernest Marples’s plea to drivers on Page 1 of the 1961 Highway Code. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

It also included a sombre, hand-written and signed introduction from Ernest Marples: ‘Casualties killed and injured (on the roads) are as high as for a major war’, ending with: ‘DO keep to the Code – and keep alive.’

Illustration of two cars on a three lane motorway
An illustration in the motorway section of the 1961 Highway Code showing a three-lane motorway and a central reservation. There were no hard shoulders, only unpaved ones, and no crash barriers – these first appeared in the 1970s. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

There was no speed limit on motorways. Drivers were free to go as fast as they wanted. ‘Doing the ton’ (100mph) was a badge of honour, especially for motorcyclists. Marples was shocked by the speed of driving and introduced a national speed limit of 70mph in December 1965.

Forton Service Station
The striking Forton Service Station (formerly Pennine Tower and now known as Lancaster Service Area), M6, between J32-33, Forton, Lancashire. Listed Grade II. Image © Historic England/AA99 04845.

Built in 1964-1965, Forton evoked the glamour of early motorway driving – its Tower Restaurant offered waitress service and a vantage point with spectacular views. The restaurant closed in 1989.

M1 blue sign
Graphic designers Margaret Calvert (1936-) and Jock Kinneir (1917-1994) were commissioned by the government, in the late 1950s, to design new motorway signs. Crown Copyright

Calvert and Kinneir’s motorway signs were modern, simple and easy to read when driving fast. The government became concerned that these signs made other British road signs – a chaotic mix of different words, styles and fonts – seem inadequate and outdated and asked them to redesign and rationalise the whole national road sign system.

The new signs came into force 1 January 1965 and the designs are still in use today on Britain’s roads and motorways.

The evolution of the highway code

The Highway Code’s sixth edition - green
The Highway Code’s sixth edition, published in 1968, had a Calvert and Kinneir road sign on the cover. The Code has been regularly revised and updated since 1931 in response to developments in society, the evolution of vehicles and advances in road design. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes

The completely modernised 1968 version was the first to use photographs and 3D illustrations. It also introduced the ‘mirror – signal – manoeuvre’ routine when overtaking.

1978 Highway code
The 1978 Highway Code, now 70 pages long. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes

With mounting pedestrian casualties, the 1978 edition introduced the Green Cross Code to educate pedestrians about road safety (children were taught it in school, helped by superhero the ‘Green Cross Man’). The safety mantra was: ‘Think, Stop, Use Your Eyes and Ears, Wait Until It Is Safe to Cross, Look and Listen, Arrive Alive.’

The new disabled badges illustrated in the 1978 Highway Code
The new disabled badges illustrated in the 1978 Highway Code. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes

This edition also launched new orange badges for people of disability, as well as having a section on vehicle security in response to rising car thefts.

Aerial view of the Gravelly Hill intersection, popularly known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’
Aerial view of the Gravelly Hill intersection, popularly known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ – the five-level intersection of the M6 motorway (Junction 6), A38(M) motorway, A38 and A5127 above two railway lines, three canals and two rivers in Birmingham, West Midlands. Image © Historic England/26491/035

As vehicles became more sophisticated, and roads busier and more complex, the Highway Code – most of whose rules are legal requirements – responded over the years with new instructions and advice in ever-growing sections.

Among them the use of seats belts, using mobile phones while driving, in-vehicle distractions such as Sat Nav, driving with illegal drugs in the system, remote control parking, smoking in vehicles, using mobility scooters, and the Theory Test – introduced in 1996 and replacing questions about the Highway Code that were originally posed during the driving test itself.

Today’s Highway Code is now 189 pages long and sells around 1 million copies annually. It is always listed in the annual best-seller list.

Header image: Motoring just outside Ludlow in Shropshire in the mid-1930s.  The car is an Austin 7 (‘Baby Austin’) © Historic England BB70/09719.

Written by Nicky Hughes

Further Reading

5 responses to The Untold Story of the Highway Code

  1. My Great Uncle had a garage around 1920 – 1950. It’s interesting to read what he and his customers would’ve had to learn about during this time. Lots of changes.

  2. Richard Stevens says:

    An excellent publication which benefits all who use the public highway but it is being altered by council highway departments in as much they are changing the entry to roundabouts thereby creating confusion by changing the entry to go over/straight on to the righthand lane thereby placing the motorist into a potentially dangerous position on exiting the roundabout (see cover of 1978 issue which gives the correct procedure for turning left, going straight on or turning right. I can understand that by freeing up the lefthand lane to “turn left” without hinderance of a vehicle but it is not necessary so as the vehicle still has to wait its turn for those on the right of said vehicle to clear the road so I am confused as to the real reason why this change has been allowed to occur it does not benefit anyone only puts vehicles into a possible dangerous situation.

  3. artculturetourism says:

    Great blog, many thanks for sharing. Best, Marysia

  4. Stephen B Greenwood says:

    Nice trip down memory lane – a reminder of some of the important dates in recent motoring history – Thank you.

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