By Richard Gormley
24th Feb 2022

Should we celebrate the Highway Code?

30th December 1980 I passed my driving test and I was able to do something I’d dreamt of for as long as I can remember.

Immediately I needed to drive something, a wheelbarrow would do! I was lucky enough to be able to afford a slight upgrade to a 1968 Ford Anglia, and I was away. A dream at last fulfilled, I’d joined that lofty elite who were not only able to drive a car, but could drive a car on their own, legally! This wasn’t the last time I felt this passionate about driving, indeed I’ve felt that way pretty much ever since. However, if I’m brutally honest, it was the last time I’d actually studied the Highway Code.

And I mean studied, really studied. Alright I had a bit of a cursory look when my children were learning to drive but, of course, I’d been driving for years, surely I knew all I needed to know anyway, and I could soak up their gratitude as I passed that wisdom on to them. But, when the announcement came that at the end of January 2022 changes would be made to the Highway Code, I thought I’d better take a look. I’m not going to detail the changes here. There are plenty or resources to help with that, not least the government’s own information here, but essentially there are some fairly fundamental changes that, if breached, can result in a fine of up to £5,000. That could really spoil your day!

It’s easy to think the world hasn’t changed much. As long as you stop at a red light, give way at a T junction and can sling the car backwards round a corner you can drive, right? Well, sort of. It’s difficult to underestimate the progress made in road safety over the years. I have to say the data runs contrary to my personal assumptions. I thought, instinctively, that today’s more congested, more crowded, more angry roads and the 100mph capable family saloon would surely conspire to result in more fatalities. Well, let’s have a look at the facts.
If you drove a car, in the UK back in 1966 then you shared the road with around 7.5 million vehicles. In 1975 that was something in the order of 16 million and today you’re looking at just under 33 million. So, with all that traffic, surely the number of fatal accidents must have increased exponentially.

In 1966 there were 7,985 people killed on British roads. By 1975 it hadn’t changed much at 7,499 and in 2020, pre pandemic, it was 1,460. So, in 2020 the number of people killed on British roads was 18% of the 1966 figure. Incredible in itself, but when considered in the context of cars on the road it’s even more remarkable. In 1966 there was 1 fatality for every 989 cars on the road. By 2020 that number had reduced to 1 for every 22,602 cars. Every fatality is a tragedy for sure, but am I the only one to think that’s amazing.

It’s not all about the Highway Code of course. Seat belts, crash helmets, better brakes, ABS, traction control, better signage and (dare I say it) safety cameras among many other things all play a part. But as for the “rules of the road”, the Highway Code is fundamental and provides a platform for how we exercise the privilege, and it is, in my view, a privilege – to use the roads independently,

It’s easy to scoff, Clarkson style, at the latest attempt by the nanny state to protect us, to wrap us in cotton wool, to give pedestrians, cyclists and horses priority over cars and to characterise the changes as a further attack on the motorist. But, when we take to the road, in our classics or otherwise, we can do so in the knowledge that, despite the congestion and the frustration, the roads are safer than ever before. We benefit from the efforts of others who, often in the face of reactionary forces, have quietly protected us and our loved ones making our journeys far less likely to result in tragedy.

I think that sounds like a cause for celebration.

Automotive Photographer and Writer – Trade Classics

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