The Original Highway Code

As a very brief aside today, I wanted to share this delightful little book I acquired a year or so ago. It is called, The Original Highway Code: Reproductions of Highway Code Booklets from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, and it is an amazing little trip back to the not-so-distant past of highway design.

For those of you that have been following the conversation we’ve been having on the Strong Towns Blog about the dubious value of traffic projections, this book will reaffirm the notion that traffic engineering is a very young profession that is, in large part, making it up as it goes along. I’m not saying these people aren’t competent, just that engineers rarely admit (even to themselves) that this is all a huge experiment and society is essentially the guinea pig.

The book contains a little background and narrative prior to each model code. For example, on early speed regulations, the following is reported at the turn of the past century:

In Brighton, Mr. Jeal was prosecuted for driving at a speed that was deemed wholly inappropriate for the traffic and road conditions. The police reported that he had been traveling at a shocking 12 mph, the court pronouncing that no one need ever travel through Brighton at more than 4 mph.

Then there was this regarding the first pedestrian killed by an automobile, a 44-year old woman named Bridget Driscoll:

At the inquest into her death, witnesses claimed that Bridget had been startled by the car and froze as it approached at a speed of at least 4 mph, although the twenty-year-old driver was accused of having modified the engine to produce up to 8 mph. An expert proved this to have been impossible.

Since we expect pedestrians to routinely walk adjacent to traffic — just a couple feet away, really –traveling at speeds from 25 mph to 45 mph, the idea of someone being mowed down by an oncoming car traveling somewhere between 4 and 8 mph is hard for the modern mind to comprehend. Imagine suggesting that nobody need travel more than even 20 mph in a city, let alone the 4 mph that society held to be acceptable a century ago. In Minnesota, the minimum design speed is mandated to be 30 mph, a speed too fast for neighborhood or productive commercial areas.

There are three codes in the book: The 1935 Highway Code, the 1946 Highway Code and the 1954 Highway Code. They are all formatted similarly and have the rules listed in numerical order. It is interesting to note how the code started as we progress from the one to the other. Here’s the first rule from each:

1935: (1) All persons have a right to use the road for purpose of passage.

1946: (1) The Highway Code is a set of commonsense provisions for the guidance and safety of all who use the roads. Consideration for others as well as for yourself is the keynote of the Code. Remember that you have responsibilities as well as rights.

1954: The road use on foot. (1) Where there is a pavement or footpath, use it.

You can see the transformation. In 1935, the road is for everyone equally; we all have rights. By 1946, we all have rights but we also have responsibilities. We’re advised to use common sense and be considerate. When we get to 1954, pedestrians, if you can get out the way, you need to do so. It is clear that we’re no longer talking about sharing the space equally.

Compared to the myriad of codes and regulations we have today, these rules seem simplistic to me but also quite effective. Our codes today seem to be obsessed with the deviant, an undertaking that I’m not so sure protects any of our common interests. Here’s Rule #14 from the 1934 Code:

(14) Do not drive in a spirit of competition with other road users. If another driver shows lack of care or good manners do not attempt any form of retaliation.

Quaint? Sure.

Effective? I don’t know. Do our current laws that deal with road rage, aggressive driving and the like work any better? I doubt it.

I must admit that there are times when I am nostalgic for a slower, simpler world. Yes, give me highways that allow me to get somewhere quickly, safely and efficiently, but when I get there, I actually want to be there. Let’s make our places worth being in, which may mean slow traffic along with more common sense and a little consideration. I think we can do it.


Let you legislator know that, if they’re planning to be in Chicago this week for the National Conference of State Legislators Annual Summit, they need to attend the Strong Towns session Tuesday afternoon at 2 PM. We hope to have some audio at the Strong Towns Podcast

Charles Marohn

About Charles Marohn

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP is the President of Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. He is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He has a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Strong Towns supports a model of growth that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.

3 thoughts on “The Original Highway Code

  1. ladyfleur

    My mother grew up in a very small town in South Louisiana in the 1930s-40s where she walked to school every day, including walking home and back for lunch. I never understood how she had walked along the road she lived on. It's a 45 mph two lane road with no shoulder and drainage ditches on either side. Streetview:

    Then I realized that back in the 1930s-40s the cars probably drove slower. When I asked her, she said yes that the cars drove slower, especially since the road wasn't paved. The kids walked along the edge of the road, where she was more worried about snakes coming out of the ditch than cars passing by.

    It's hard for people born after 1945 to understand what it used to be like before fast cars were given free reign over streets and roads.

  2. Tom Murphy

    A writer for the New York Times commented on NYC road speed recently and provided links to when the official speed limits were set, actually raised each time. In 1925, it was set at 25mph and the chief enforcer for NYPD commented that if it were enforced at any lower speed he'd have to arrest the vast majority of the city's drivers. Again, in 1964, it was set at 30mph, but only because NYS law required it. If not NYC would have to post signage almost everywhere–too cumbersome! Arthur Barnes, NYC Traffic commissioner, was not happy. There was no discussion of likely injury or fatality mentioned in the story.

    In the article from 1925 which there was testimony from a Harvard professor who had tested the reflexes of 10,000 drivers, including 2,000 women. The women were universally less agile and, he concluded, inferior to men drivers. I wonder what became of that study? Part of urban mythology, I believe.

  3. Ian Bicking

    This historical record of deaths is kind of interesting: – seems like the death rate due to motor vehicles was in the low 20s (per 100k) from the 40s until the 90s (when the rate got lower still). Before then it was higher, until you get into earlier years where I'm guessing there was less use of cars, and then at some point it isn't recorded at all. Note of course that the number of deaths has remained steady for a long time despite many more cars and more miles traveled, so a mile traveled has become quite a bit safer.

    Deaths involving other means of transportation (before cars) aren't categorized, though somewhere I know I've seen fairly high numbers of deaths due to horses. This article quotes 17 deaths per 10k horse-drawn vehicles, in 1916 Chicago:… – not, however, a very easy number to relate to the other numbers.

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