Any visitor to modern-day London would find it difficult to conceive of a time when the traffic laws were not tightly adhered to. But, before 26th March 1934, drivers were pretty much allowed to just get on with it.
The notion was that if you were rich enough to buy a motor-car then you were almost certainly educated, and, therefore, probably not the sort of person who would go about purposefully running pedestrians down. Strangely, this logic turned out to be somewhat flawed.
The Highway Code was first published in 1931, providing guidance and rules for the use of Britain’s roads, after the government of the time failed to take any action over the mounting traffic fatalities occurring. About 7000 deaths a year – a fairly impressive figure, considering the paucity of motor-cars on the road at the time.
In 1934, the newly-appointed Minister of Transport, Mr. Leslie Hore-Belisha, decided to take action.
The resulting ‘Road Traffic Act’:
- Imposed a blanket 30MPH in all built-up areas.
- Introduced a new type of pedestrian crossing, to be marked with highly-visible electric beacons – named ‘Belisha’ by the press, after the MP who devised them. (They didn’t go with ‘Hore beacons’, oddly.)
And, most significantly of all:
- Brought in a new mandatory driving test for car users.
(Happily for us all, the first person to master the new half-hour test of basic driving skills, was a gentleman named ‘Mr Beene’.)
However, the new laws weren’t quite as rigidly enforced as they might have been. In a sort of concessionary move to silence the protests of the (rich) early motorists – whose reckless driving had prompted the Act to be created in the first place – it was decided that anyone who had taken out a driving licence before 1st April 1934 should not have to take the test.
Later, world events also put a halt to the traffic laws. The driving test was suspended for the duration of the Second World War. More unusually, perhaps, they were suspended again during the Suez Crisis in 1956, when – for the month between October and November that year – learners were once again allowed to drive unaccompanied.
Before the introduction of car indicators, all new drivers had to demonstrate their ability to use hand signals. This was only dropped from mandatory testing in 1975. (These days, drivers still use a variety of hand signals, of course, but they tend to be of a less helpful variety.)
The driving test continues to evolve and, unhappily, for those taking their test today, has become more complicated and more difficult to pass. (Remember that next time you’re rubbishing your 16 year old nephew’s 9 A* GCSEs…)
On 1st July 1996, a separate written theory test was made compulsory; meaning leaners now had to demonstrate their knowledge of the Highway Code. (In 2007, the 35 questions were extended to 50.) In November 2002, the test was amended again, this time to include a section on reacting to hazards.
As with everything else in modern life, the internet has forced changes to how tests take place. In 2012, the list of routes used by test centres had to be forcibly removed from the web, to prevent candidates memorising them ‘by rote’.
The first person to die in the UK as a result of a traffic collision was an incredibly unfortunate lady called Bridget Driscoll. She was killed on the 17th August 1896, crossing the grounds of the Crystal Palace (home of ‘The Great Exhibition’) in London.
The car that struck her belonged to the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company – and was used to give demonstrations of the new ‘petrol system’.
Learn more about the history of motoring with The Bluffer’s Guide to Cars ® .