Highway Code

What is The Highway Code?

A beginners' guide to The Highway Code

Total Reading Time: 9 mins 10 secs; Author: The AA; Last Updated: 20 October 2023

In order to pass your driving test, you’ll need a good knowledge of The Highway Code. But you’ll also find this helpful during everyday driving.

Here we’ll answer the questions: What is The Highway Code? What does it cover? And is it against the law to break The Highway Code?

Explaining the highway code

What is The Highway Code?

The Highway Code is a comprehensive guide to the rules of the road. It was first introduced in 1931 and is now updated regularly to reflect developments with vehicles, driving practices and the law. Its purpose is to make roads safer for everybody, while also supporting an efficient, healthy and sustainable transport system.

By learning and applying The Highway Code while learning to drive, you should become a safer driver. You can pick up copies of The Highway Code book from bookshops and online retailers.

You can also read the official Highway Code online at GOV.UK. This covers England, Scotland and Wales.

There’s a different version of The Highway Code for Northern Ireland.

What does The Highway Code cover?

There are no two ways about it: It’s essential that you read The Highway Code. It applies to all road users – not just drivers – including the most vulnerable: pedestrians, older people or disabled people, cyclists, motorcyclists and horse riders.

All road users should be aware of The Highway Code, and make decisions which give due consideration to each other.

The Highway Code is broken down into a number of sections. These cover:

  • Rules for pedestrians
  • Rules for users of powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters
  • Rules about animals
  • Rules for cyclists
  • Rules for motorcyclists
  • Rules for drivers and motorcyclists
  • General rules, techniques and advice for all drivers and riders: This covers topics such as speed limits, signalling, stopping and lane driving,
  • Using the road: This covers general rules on using the road safely, including junctions, crossings, roundabouts and overtaking.
  • Road users requiring extra care: This covers vulnerable road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians
  • Driving in adverse weather conditions
  • Waiting and parking
  • Motorways
  • Breakdowns and incidents
  • Roadworks, level crossings and tramways
  • Light signals controlling traffic
  • Signals to road users
  • Signals by authorised persons
  • Traffic signs
  • Road markings
  • Vehicle markings

Plus there are additional sections that cover the law, penalties, vehicle maintenance and first aid, among other topics.

New Highway Code rules

Road rules and best practices are updated and refined continually, so there are often Highway Code changes to be aware of.

GOV.UK recommends signing up to its email alerts to keep on top of new Highway Code rules, and also following its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

At the time of writing, the most major recent Highway Code changes came into effect in January 2022. These were introduced to improve safety for pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders, and included:

  • The introduction of a hierarchy of road users
  • Clarification of the need to give way to pedestrians crossing at junctions
  • Provisions for walking, cycling or riding in shared spaces
  • Updated guidance for road positioning while cycling

To find out more, read GOV.UK’s 8 Highway Code changes you need to know from 29 January 2022.

Is The Highway Code available online?

Yes. For rules covering England, Scotland and Wales, you can read the official Highway Code online at GOV.UK.

The Highway Code for Northern Ireland is a different version, which all road users in Northern Ireland are recommended to brush up on.

Does The Highway Code cover road signs?

The Highway Code does cover the vast majority of road and traffic signs, from the common to the obscure.

Recommended reading includes ‘Know your traffic signs’. This covers the signing system, regulatory signs, speed limit signs, and all other signs in Great Britain.

You can also brush up on more Highway Code traffic signs by reading our guide to road signs and what they mean.

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How can I learn The Highway Code?

If you’re wondering how to learn The Highway Code, the way which works most effectively is down to you. Everyone learns differently, so think about the way you’re likely to absorb the information best. This could be by reading the book – or listening to the audiobook version – but there are other options you may find helpful:

Download a Highway Code app. App-based learning can be really effective, as it’s more likely to be interactive and engaging, while also tracking your progress. The AA theory test app contains all the information about The Highway Code that you need to pass your test.

Try online Highway Code quizzes. There are an abundance of quizzes and resources online designed to test your knowledge. Why not try regularly taking a different one?

Get family or friends to test you. You could get them to concentrate on specific areas where you need to improve. Just make sure that the version of The Highway Code you’re using is up to date, to ensure you’re learning the latest possible info.

Do I need to know The Highway Code to pass my driving test?

You will need a good knowledge of The Highway Code in order to pass each part of the driving test. It is, after all, an essential manual for promoting road safety.

For instance, during the practical driving test, you’ll need to show a working knowledge of The Highway Code to your examiner.

Is The Highway Code in the theory test?

It certainly is. The first part of the driving theory test, which is a multiple-choice test, is only about The Highway Code and driving theory.

Is The Highway Code law?

The Highway Code isn’t itself a law, but rather a collection of rules and best practices. But many of the rules in The Highway Code represent actual laws.

As an example, let’s say you drive through a red traffic light. This is covered by Highway Code rule 109, which states that ‘You MUST obey all traffic light signals’.

But the actual law you’re breaking here is covered by The Road Traffic Act 19881. Depending on whether you drove through a red light by mistake or on purpose, you could be charged with either the offence of careless or inconsiderate driving (section 3 of the RTA 1988), or dangerous driving (section 2 of the RTA 1988).

Some Highway Code rules are legally binding. These are highlighted by the use of ‘MUST’ or ‘MUST NOT’ in the text.

For example, rule 106 concerns police stopping procedures. If a police officer wants you to pull over, then you must do this when it’s safe to do so. This is a legal requirement, and you’re breaking the law if you don’t.

Breaking these laws could land you with a fine, penalty points on your licence, or in some cases prison sentences.

The rest of The Highway Code provisions are good practice, but not necessarily legal requirements. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take them seriously, and breaking The Highway Code may still have legal consequences.

For example, rule 148 of the Highway Code notes that driving requires concentration. As such certain distractions should be avoided. Listening to loud music, eating or drinking, and smoking are given among the examples.

This doesn’t mean that it’s illegal to do any of these things while driving. What it does mean is that they could be a contributory factor in an offence. If you crash while eating something, you might be charged with dangerous driving (section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 1988), with The Highway Code violation providing supporting evidence.

The AA edition of the Highway Code is available to order online and from all bookshops.

When was The Highway Code introduced?

The Highway Code was introduced by the Ministry of Transport, as a provision of the Road Traffic Act 1930. The first edition was published on 14 April 1931, costing the princely sum of one penny.

At the time of its introduction, there were just 2.3 million motor vehicles in Great Britain, but there were nonetheless over 7,000 collision-related fatalities each year.

Like today, the first edition of The Highway Code urged drivers to put safety first, and be considerate to other road users. Other recommendations – such as sounding the horn while overtaking – haven’t aged so well.

It was also 21 pages long, featuring advice, information and adverts – for Castrol Motor Oil, BP Plus petrol and an organisation known as The AA, among others.

1 https://www.cps.gov.uk/crime-info/driving-offences