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Icon of the month: The Highway Code

Paul Powell

Icon.jpgIt's one of the all-time best sellers. A classic book that's been committed to memory by millions. An essential guide to keeping the roads safe and the traffic moving. A set of rules that can make the difference to life, death, and 12 penalty points. So when did you last read your copy of The Official Highway Code? That'd be the day you passed your driving test...

Since first publication in 1931, the Highway Code has been the definitive guide to road safety and oddly-staged photographs. A collection of rules and regulations that is simultaneously closely observed and utterly ignored.
It's estimated that one million copies of the Highway Code are sold every year. And that's before the 3-for-2 deal and a stickered recommendation from Richard & Judy.

Like estimates of Peaches Geldof's intelligence, it's continually being revised. In 1946, the stopping distance at 50 mph was 175 feet. Now, thanks to advances in tyre wear and braking technology, that figure has been revised to 53 metres. Oh, wait - that's 175 feet. Thanks for nothing, ABS.

The latest version careers into the future, incorporating advice on mobile phones, Sat-Nav, and the motorway dot matrix (although it seems trite to call the dot matrix futuristic when the information displayed is inevitably two hours behind).

While the Highway Code feels like a fondly-remembered friend, there's a great deal to surprise you. For a start, it's only applied to England, Scotland and Wales. Yes, Northern Ireland merits its own edition - ingeniously titled 'The Highway Code For Northern Ireland'. There's an annexe about craics in the pavement.

While claiming to be the definitive guide to road use, it's noticeable how much is missing. Like advice on picking the quickest queue at petrol stations (before getting the pump to stop exactly at £20.00), avoiding the AA men who roam the entrance to motorway services and look closer to a breakdown than any motor vehicle, not to mention tips for abusing cycle couriers and the safest way to perform a drive-by shooting.

Coming back to the Highway Code after a 23-year break (passed first time, thank you very much) brought home a poignant parallel. It's been described as the Bible for road users and the comparison is all too apt.

The Highway Code is a book that everyone knows but few read. It dispenses practical advice on behaviour, priorities, observing the law, staying safe, and respecting those around you (especially those who choose a different way of travelling).

It's seen as fusty, old-fashioned, and judgemental. A naive book that doesn't relate to the real world and everyday practise. Ignorant of life on the road and life on the streets.

The book taken to heart by enthusiastic teenagers is soon retired to the shelf. Experienced motorists tend to follow their own rules. They do what works for them. It's my way on the highway. Discipline ebbs away and gets overtaken by selfish routines and bad habits. Lines are crossed and limits get broken. The business of attentive driving is switched to automatic pilot.

Some people change the moment they get behind the wheel. Check the mirror, engage gear and slip into barely-suppressed rage. How we drive reflects how we live. Pressed, stressed, distracted, pushing in, barging by, intolerant, short-tempered and overwhelmed. It only takes one misjudged turn or one mistimed manoeuvre to shatter the misconception that we are safe, secure, and all-powerful. That a car isn't an impregnable metal box, it's a soap bubble.

The latest edition of the Highway Code declares it's 'for life, not just for learners'. It tells us that every day, an average of nine people are killed and around 80 people are seriously injured in road collisions. The Highway Code isn't there to get us past our driving test - it makes a crucial difference between life and death. So what does your Bible do?