Like most drivers, I have not glanced at the Highway Code since the day I passed my driving test. This is, I recognise, suboptimal. For one thing, there were no mobile phones when I took my test, so I only have it on trust that one should not use them while driving. For all I know you are allowed to use them, just not in a built-up area during the hours of darkness.
But with an updated version of the code due, this feels the right time to offer a few constructive suggestions on how it might reflect the modern road-user’s experience.
The most interesting guidance for the new code is that it establishes a “hierarchy of road users”. Those who do “the greatest harm” have “the greatest responsibility to reduce the threat they pose to others”. This seems very hard on pedestrians busily engrossed in their phones. But, then again, safety is paramount.
There are a few obvious changes coming. First, it will be illegal to drive along narrow or suburban roads in a normal car. The new code will state clearly that such roads are off limits to anything smaller than a five-door SUV or a 4x4. A car is no longer considered roadworthy in suburbia if it cannot accommodate a family of five, six suitcases, two St Bernards and a reunion of the Electric Light Orchestra.
This already seems to be the rule in London, where the roads are clogged up with ever-larger SUVs. Walking the dog down one of the small suburban streets near our house, I found one that looked like something defence companies sell to dictatorships for crowd control. It did not, admittedly, have a water cannon mounted on the back (very handy for the Costco car park) but the deluxe model comes with Colonel Tim Collins delivering an eve-of-battle speech as you speed through the mean streets of Twickenham.
This, apparently, was the Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian Plus pick-up truck (for those days when an ordinary Barbarian just won’t do). There are, I have to say, relatively few occasions when the treacherous terrain of south-west London calls for a Barbarian Plus. No doubt it is just the ticket in the Atacama Desert, but in Putney, a Lexus will get you through most emergencies. But rules are rules.
Of course, the code covers all road users. Hence the passage reminding cyclists to abandon their ebikes across the whole pavement and the warnings to users of electric scooters that while their vehicles are not banned, they are currently not allowed on either roads or pavements. If you are intending to use one regardless, the code makes it clear you must buzz pedestrians on the left side only.
Chapter six will set out regulations for cycle lanes, which must now be the width of at least two Barbarian Pluses — or three if they are hardly used. Now, I am pro-cycle lane, not least because I use them a fair amount. They are an unalloyed good. But as the code will make clear, they simply aren’t fulfilling their purpose if there isn’t a single file of stationary cars idling next to them. The code will spell out that these extra-wide cycle lanes are compulsory in major trunk roads and in hard-pressed high streets, where retailers will now benefit from the added tranquillity that comes with reduced footfall. It will also clarify that cyclists will be allowed to ride two abreast, both for safety reasons or if one is texting their mates.
All road users are reminded of the importance of good manners.
It is simply not acceptable to beep your horn at a supermarket delivery driver just because he stopped in the middle of the road, rather than take a parking space 20 yards away. Play nice: those sugar snaps are not going to
Of course, the future may lie in automation, but here too the new code is ahead of the game. Driverless cars will obviously have the entire code pre-programmed into their software, but they will now be required to click the photographs of traffic lights before starting, to prove that they aren’t a robot.
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published