The Highway Code is a set of information, advice, guides and mandatory rules for road users in the United Kingdom. Its objective is to promote road safety. The Highway Code applies to all road users including pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists, as well as motorcyclists and drivers. It gives information on road signs, road markings, vehicle markings, and road safety. There are annexes on vehicle maintenance, licence requirements, documentation, penalties, and vehicle security.
The Highway Code was first published in 1931, and has been regularly updated to reflect current practices. It is prepared by the Department for Transport and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, and is published by The Stationery Office in electronic form and as a printed book.
The Great Britain version, available in English and Welsh, applies to England, Scotland and Wales, but regional specific signs such as driver location signs in England or bilingual signs in Scotland and Wales are not covered. The Northern Ireland version, available in English and Irish, applies to Northern Ireland.
The origins of the code can be traced back to 1920 when the Departmental Committee on the Regulation of Motor Vehicles announced that "a compulsory and uniform code of signals for all road vehicles is to be brought into operation". Drivers in London had evolved a system for signalling their intentions to turn right or stop, using their arm, and this was seen to be of such benefit that it should be required and standardised as a code of behaviour across the country. The code allowed the driver to use either his own arm or a dummy arm - which had obvious benefits in wet weather for drivers with the luxury of an enclosed cab, or for drivers using left-hand-drive vehicles, as in imported American cars. The intention to bring in the compulsory code was delayed and in successive years the code was expanded including whip signals for horse drawn vehicles, and signals made by policemen controlling junctions.
In 1923 a booklet costing one penny was published by His Majesty's Stationery Office and approved by the Home Office (and Scottish Office). Entitled Traffic Signals to be used by the Police and Drivers of Vehicles, this booklet arose from discussions between the Police and The Automobile Association. In subsequent years, in addition to being promoted by the automobile associations, the code was publicised using posters by the National Safety First Association (which still continues this work having been renamed the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 1936).
The introduction of The Highway Code was one of the provisions of the wide-reaching Road Traffic Act 1930. Costing one penny, the first edition of the code was published on 14 April 1931. It contained just 18 pages of advice, including the arm signals to be given by drivers and police officers controlling traffic. The second edition, considerably expanded, appeared in 1934, and now illustrated road signs for the first time. During its preparation the Ministry of Transport consulted with the Pedestrians Association.
Further major revisions followed after the Second World War so that, for example, references to trams were still included in the 1954 version but disappeared after that (tramway rules returned to the Code in 1994, after the first modern tram systems in Britain had opened). Motorway driving was included in the fifth edition. The sixth edition, in 1968, used photographs as well as drawings for the first time, and also updated the illustrations of road signs to take the new 'continental' designs into account. The 70-page 1978 edition introduced the Green Cross Code for pedestrians and orange badges for unskilled drivers. The format was changed to a 'taller' size in the 1990s. An electronic Highway Code app followed in 2012.
On 28 July 2020 a consultation was launched on proposed code changes to improve safety for vulnerable road users, particularly cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders. The main changes being proposed are:
Certain rules in The Highway Code are legal requirements, and are identified by the words 'must' or 'must not'. In these cases, the rules also include references to the corresponding legislation. Offenders may be cautioned, given licence penalty points, fined, banned from driving, or imprisoned, depending on the severity of the offence. Although failure to comply with the other rules would not, in itself, cause a person to be prosecuted, the Highway Code may be used in court under the Road Traffic Act to establish liability. These include advisory rules with wording 'should' and 'should not' or 'do' and 'do not'. In general, only the latest official printed version of the Highway Code should be used but in legal proceedings, whether civil or criminal, the version current at the time of the incident would apply.
The Road Traffic Act 1988 states:
A failure on the part of a person to observe a provision of The Highway Code shall not of itself render that person liable to criminal proceedings of any kind but any such failure may in any proceedings (whether civil or criminal, and including proceedings for an offence under the Traffic Acts, the [1981 c. 14.] Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981 or sections 18 to 23 of the [1985 c. 67.] Transport Act 1985) be relied upon by any party to the proceedings as tending to establish or negative any liability which is in question in those proceedings.
The Highway Code is available in the following forms: