As the festive season approaches and weather worsens, we should all be reminded of the importance of road safety. Hazardous driving conditions, icy roads and low visibility can all put drivers at a serious risk of accidents over autumn and winter.
In 2014, the DVSA (Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) found that 77% of drivers don’t keep up to date with the Highway Code. As a set of driving practices, this ‘guide’ changes regularly with different legislation imposing new restrictions and laws. The fact that so many drivers are failing to keep up to date with these changes is a worrying trend.
To understand more about 2015’s driving habits, we surveyed a sample of British drivers to see how informed they are on the Highway Code. A troubling 29% of the respondents who have been driving for over five years explained that they wouldn’t be confident in passing their test now if they had to take it again. Car theory test pass rates have reflected this concerning lack of knowledge about driving theory. Pass rates have seen a steady decline every year since 2007. From a level of 65% in the 2007/2008 period, this year’s pass rate stands at around 49%. While accident rates are certainly at a lower level than they have been in the past, are we all forgetting the driving basics?
Road safety legislation was first introduced in the UK in 1903 as a means of registering and identifying vehicles. In 1910, there were only around 100,000 cars registered in the country but by 1930 that had almost trebled to over 260,000. In response to awful records of road fatalities (there were 4,866 fatalities in 1926), the Road Traffic Act of 1930 was introduced.
This was the first piece of legislation in 27 years, despite this massive jump in the level of car ownership. It introduced new driving offences which started to help curb reckless driving. However, the act also abolished the 30mph speed limit already in place because it was so flagrantly disregarded by motorists. There were also still no standardised driving tests, these would not- be introduced for another four years. That meant that anyone over the age of 17 years old could drive down a public highway without ever having driven before. A highway code was introduced a year later but was only 18 pages long. Hardly a comprehensive guide to driving.
Unfortunately, the Road Traffic Act did little to prevent dangerous driving and records got worse. In 1934, there were a record 7,343 deaths on Britain’s roads, a record that stands to this day. To put that into context that’s about three times as many as there were in 2014. This huge spike and the general consensus that drivers were out of control caused the Road Safety Act to be redrawn in 1934, with the reintroduction of the speed limit and a considerable expansion of the Highway Code.
Additional acts and regulations that have affected these guidelines have been introduced regularly ever since. In 1988, a new Road Traffic Act was introduced which detailed more driving offences and up to date regulations as automobile technology advanced. As recent as 2014, the Road Traffic Act of 1988 was amended in Scotland to change the drink-driving limit. And, just this year Smoke-free (Private Vehicles) Regulations were added to address the issue of smoking in motor vehicles.
The Highway Code has had many guises in its 85-year history but is still primarily a means of advising on the best practice to keep drivers and pedestrians safe. This set of ‘guidelines’ is split between the ‘MUST’ not’s and the ‘SHOULD’ not’s. Any of the guidelines that are prefaced with ‘You SHOULD not’ are just that, guidelines. Although they will not directly result in a prosecution if you enact them, they can be used against you in a court of law to prove your liability in an incident. Anything prefaced with ‘You MUST not’ are illegal actions that you can be prosecuted for. The penalties for breaking each law vary and custodial sentences can run up to 14 years, with unlimited fines for some offences. While there is an obvious distinction between the two, to keep yourselves and others safe, you should follow all of these guidelines.
Amendments to the Highway Code and legislation on driving often happening without fanfare, so what can you do to keep up to date? There are a few methods:
- The media in the first instance will often alert you to major changes, but don’t just rely on newspapers and television for all your information. Take a look at the changes in more depth after the fact.
- Follow Highway Code on Twitter to get regular updates and reminders about what to do and more importantly, what not to do.
- Regularly read through the Highway Code if you’re unsure of specific regulations. The online edition is updated regularly and can be found online here.
If you’ve been the victim of a road traffic accident then it’s recommended you speak to a specialist solicitor who can advise you on the next steps.