I was glad to discover a stash of old Highway Codes when clearing a section of my attic. The two oldest dated from 1962 and 1968. The first has a very period feel to it, reflecting another, simpler world in which car drivers were mostly men in sports jackets smoking a pipe, women wore long skirts and pushed prams not buggies, and children wishing to cross the road all wore school uniform and carried satchels. And everyone wore a hat.
Lets have a look at the Highway Code from 1962, which I bought myself, with my pocket money, when aged ten.
In those days, over fifty years ago, a personal message from the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation would greet you on opening the slim volume. In this case, Harold Watkinson, the minister from December 1955 right through to October 1959 - but surely quite forgotten now - who says:
Accidents on our roads do not just happen; they are caused - sometimes by a faulty vehicle, sometimes by road conditions, but nearly always by human error. These mistakes, which take our lives, are made because in most cases we simply do not realize what we are doing until it is too late.
In other words, our conduct on the roads is not what it needs to be for present-day traffic. This Highway Code is for the ordinary road user; it sets out in the simplest language the code of behaviour which is a ''must'' if we are ever to make an impression on the totals of road accidents. If we could ensure that for the coming year every road user obeyed the Code, we should save a great many lives - perhaps our own.
To all who read this Code I would therefore say: ''Give as much time and thought to learning the Code as you would to anything else on which your life might depend. Contrary to what you might think, this Code is meant for you, not the other road user. Remember, it is your life you are risking.''
Now doesn't that sound like a well-meaning minister speaking? Note the earnest lecturing style, the wagging finger, the punctilious grammar, the double inverted commas, and the 'z' in realize, which is surely more commonly written with an 's' nowadays - at least by me!
That said, I rather like this edition of the Highway Code. It's short and sweet, and very clear about what one must do, although it omits the 'why' and is very sparing on the 'how'. It relies a lot on comprehension through drawings, but I think these work as well as photographs. Here's a short selection:
Ah, Kerb Drill explained in a few words at Rule 7! (The modern equivalent is the much more verbose Green Cross Code)
By 1962, most cars had the modern flashing lights we know today, to indicate left or right. But enough hadn't to give point to the section on hand signals. The section on motorway driving was a surprise - very few miles of motorway existed in 1962! Note the male trouser leg and boot pressing the footbrake on the yellow back page! Trousers with turn-ups must have been all the rage.
Oh dear, what a mess those old road signs were. I also found this little booklet from 1965, which gave details of a new type of road sign that would be progressively introduced in the years ahead. These signs have now become universal. (It's a rare treat to see a surviving old-style sign, and it's always worth a photo)
Strange to think that these 'new' signs have now been around for fifty years. They are everywhere, and in great numbers. We must be the best-signed country on earth. It would truly be a colossal task (and a hugely expensive one) to switch them to the other side of the road, as would be necessary if the UK ever adopted the continental rule of the road - driving on the right. Which is why I think that will never happen.
The next edition of the Highway Code in my possession was published in 1968. It has a much more contemporary look.
The front cover shows the 'KEEP LEFT' sign, and it's tempting to suppose that a subtle political message was being pushed at the public. In 1968 Harold Wilson's Labour government was in power. There was still a personal message from the Minister of Transport, Richard Marsh - also almost forgotten now - who held the job for a short while from April 1968 to October 1969:
This is a new and bigger Highway Code. It has been completely revised and re-written. We've tried to make it easy to read and understand.
Most people study the Code before their driving test and then forget it. That's a pity, because this is a working book. it repays continuous study.
It deals with problems you will meet on the road, whether driving, walking or cycling. You may say ''I don't need a book to tell me what to do''. But there are right and wrong ways of dealing with hazards and emergencies and even normal situations on the roads. If everyone always did things the right way we wouldn't have all the accidents we do. The Code explains the right way.
The Code is not theory. It's a mine of practical, down-to-earth advice. It's a pocket life-saver. Please read it. Please do what it says.
'I will! I will respond to this very reasonable plea!' Thus spake the sixteen-year old me. Driving lessons were at least two years off, but I was keen to pass my driving test first time, and acquire some mobility and independence - assuming Dad would trust me with the family Ford Cortina! (It took me two attempts before I passed)
This 1968 edition of the Code lacks quaintness but is altogether a better guide to good practice, with more explanation of the 'why' and 'how' behind each rule. The drawings have gone - it's now filled with photographs, or illustrations based on photographs - on the whole successfully:
Toy cars, though?
The arm signal to a person in front of the car, when turning left, now requires the driver to whack a big hand across his passenger's face! And driving is evidently still regarded as a pursuit for men in suits.
Is it my imagination, or does that constable in the green section have a rather fruity look on his face? 'Yes, m'lud. The policeman on point duty gave me a big come-on. I felt obliged to respond.'
I won't trouble anyone with the later editions in my collection. Except to draw attention to this table, which reveals that the number of separate rules has grown considerably as the years have passed:
RULES TO HEED (excluding other material at the end of each version of the Code)
No wonder passing one's driving test is now a major endeavour!
They cover everything in today's Highway Code. For instance, what to do when confronted with a lollipop lady using Kendo to defend the pedestrian crossing: