Why you should care
Because you may want to apply the brakes.
Londoner Sara Dixon gave up on the dream of getting her driver’s license after her seventh try. For her, it wasn’t a matter of not recognizing basic British road signs — she could identify them one at a time — but rather “the sheer number of them which made them difficult for me to decipher,” she says.
Dixon may try again one day, “but outside London,” and she’s far from alone in struggling to ID the multicolored geometric shapes, swerves and circles that comprise the Highway Code’s myriad traffic signs.
Over 80 percent of British drivers don’t know basic national road signs and rules.
That’s according to a recent online poll involving 250 drivers. The survey, with questions based on those taken directly from the modern theory test, was sponsored by young-driver insurance brand Ingenie — admittedly a firm with skin in the game. It revealed that 82 percent of participants failed to recognize national road rules and signs and that more than a third got fewer than half the answers right. (Ingenie declined to comment for this story.)
Cambridgeshire-based driving instructor Richard King, of Kingsway Driving School, wasn’t terribly surprised by the results. While all British drivers are required to pass a theory test, which involves studying the Highway Code and the signs, he has seen how quickly drivers begin to disregard signage altogether. “When I’m teaching, I’m always asking people, ‘What was that sign we just went past?’ ” The usual response is, he adds, “Uh, what sign?” The biggest problem, in other words, is that drivers tend not to look at them at all, King says.
The usual response: “Uh, what sign?”
Other factors that lead to unsafe driving include a lack of enforcement. Policing cuts in the U.K. mean it’s highly unusual to be stopped by cops for infractions; speeding, at most, results in a camera snapshot and a fine that comes by mail. Few people even realize that tailgating — what King calls a major problem in Britain — is illegal, to the tune of a 100 pound fine and three points on one’s license. Lack of enforcement results in bad habits, a problem that’s exacerbated by the fact that today’s modern cars feel so safe and comfy. “People tend to be overconfident,” King says. “They don’t appreciate what really happens when things go wrong.”
While most who have studied the British Highway Code should recognize what the signs mean, the danger, King says, comes from people not understanding or not following the posted warnings. The best solution? Reviewing courses and being required to retake one’s driving test every decade — something Dixon would likely dread to see put into place. But King thinks it would be ideal for boosting safety on British roads. Political will for such a change is “extremely unlikely,” King admits, noting that he’s putting his faith in technology and partly in autonomous cars, which he hopes will begin speaking to one another to improve safety and road capacity in the years to come.