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If in Doubt, Read the Small Print

21 May 2015/Categories: PTRC News

For decades we have been demanding ever more from our streets. It is not just that people are travelling more. Now there are multiple elements to manage: reconciling the movement and place functions our roads have to perform; prioritising various users in the competition for road space; servicing the economy and society through the utility services under the surface; and more. 

Dealing with this requires rules and one of the problems for those of us dealing with roads and traffic is that the rule book isn’t in fact a book.  In reality it is a library:  The Highways Act 1980, Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, Road Traffic Act 1988, Traffic Management Act 2004 to name a few, plus several London-specific Acts and, of course, all the regulations, codes of practice and guidance that are made under these Acts . 

Some of these Acts, like the Highways Act, have roots that go back to pre- motorised transport and have been amended numerous times.  They have been consolidated from time to time and further consolidation is well overdue, although the chances of getting the necessary priority from Government is slim.  Others like the New Roads and Street Works Act reflected a significant change in policy, in that case when the utility companies were being privatised.  These too have been amended as policies have evolved.  Many Acts include a mixture; the Traffic Management Act, for example, introduced the new concepts of Traffic Managers and permit schemes but other sections involved amending or replacing parts of at least half a dozen other Acts. 

Fortunately the Government’s ‘’ website enables us to see the ‘as amended’ Acts and which sections of the Acts have actually come into force.  Even though the updating is not always as quick as we might hope, this is a great help, especially when the basic Act goes back 30 years or more.  There are also commercial services available which keep track of all the changes for their subscribers.

This multiplicity of laws and regulations may sound rather complicated and somewhat daunting, and that can be so, especially if there are cross references to other legislation or definitions to trace back.  It is nevertheless important to understand which part (or parts) of legislation is relevant in each situation.  Authorities have been caught out at times by not quoting the right powers for their actions. Sometimes they have been challenged as going beyond their powers and case law has developed to define the boundaries more clearly.  Sometimes a seemingly good idea has foundered because it has become apparent that the authority does not have the powers it assumed it had.  And even if everyone agrees that a change in the law would be sensible, change can be a very slow process. 

So we have to operate with the law as it stands, as it has grown piecemeal over the years.  Most of the time that will not be a problem, although even for regular activities it is worth knowing where the relevant powers lie.  But where authorities want to try something a bit different, then we need to remember the adage ‘don’t assume, read the small print’ and delve into the sometimes confusing, sometimes frustrating, sometimes surprising subject that is highway and traffic law. 

Mike Talbot MSc, CEng, MICE

Traffic and Transportation Consultant


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