Blog post

UK Highway Code update 2022: a social marketing challenge

Dr Alison Lawson, Head of Discipline of Marketing and Operations, Derby Business School, looks at the challenges facing the UK government in communicating this year's changes to the Highway Code.

By Dr Alison Lawson - 20 December 2022

Before you can take your driving test in the UK you have to pass a theory test that tests your understanding of the Highway Code, the laws and the rules of the road designed to reduce road accidents.

As a driver, you must demonstrate that you know about speed restrictions, junction priorities at roundabouts, braking distances, how to take corners safely, what to do around horses and cyclists, when to give way, and what all the signs and markings on the road mean before you can take the practical driving test.

Rules of the road

So, we all know the rules of the road when we start driving - for most of us, that's in our late teens. But what happens when the rules are updated? The world changes, road usage evolves and the rules must evolve too.

In January 2022, the Highway Code was updated. There were eight important changes to help protect cyclists, horse riders and pedestrians following a public consultation about their safety on the roads.

But how could the Department for Transport let people know about these changes? Marketing communications usually target specific groups so that the message, tone of voice, words and images used can be tailored to hit the spot in a cost-effective way. How do you target a population as wide and diverse as ‘all road users’? There are millions of road users, whether drivers, cyclists, horse riders or pedestrians. It would have been totally impractical to ask drivers to take an updated test, which is only available to drivers rather than all road users.

The cost of sending a printed document outlining the changes to every household would have been enormous, and the document might still not have been read by all road users. Just getting the message out to people is only half the problem. How do you ensure that people see the message, understand it and remember it?

A copy of the Highway Code with driving licence and car key
Image by Ascannio -

A social marketing approach

In marketing terms, this kind of mass communication for the public good is called ‘social marketing’, which is the use of marketing theory and techniques to inform, educate, change perceptions or prompt behaviour change for the good of individuals, communities and society in general. 

Examples of social marketing include health promotion campaigns to encourage people to have the flu jab, check themselves for lumps or be aware of the dangers of smoking. Other examples include requests for people not to drop litter in parks and public places, messages about recycling and energy usage or conserving water. These campaigns follow a range of frameworks for good practice and use a variety of media – TV adverts and short films, radio advertising, print advertising in newspapers and magazines, outdoor advertising using posters or billboards, and digital media such as websites and social networking sites. 

Lasting impression

Public information films from my childhood that have stayed with me all my life include 'clunk click every trip' about fastening your seat belt, the Tufty Club about crossing the road safely, shocking adverts about drink-driving at Christmas, the iceberg AIDS awareness campaign in the 1980s and a terrifying short film about the dangers on farms that involved the horrific deaths of a group of children. I still shudder when I think of that one.

In the case of communicating the changes to the Highway Code, the Department for Transport used a multi-channel information campaign called ‘Travel like you know them’, involving print media (posters), broadcast (radio), video-on-demand, digital audio, online video and social media under its THINK! brand, which it has used for road safety messaging for some years. A range of short videos and static images for print and out-of-home advertising were developed and used in February and March 2022 to inform people of the changes. 

Was the campaign successful?

After this first phase of promotion, 87% of adults had heard about the changes, with 61% saying they knew either a little or a lot about them, according to the Department for Transport research. This represented a big increase in the public’s awareness of the changes. In terms of awareness, the campaign was a success or at least a success in progress. Being aware and knowing ‘a little’ about the changes means that not all the message has got through effectively.

A cyclist in traffic wearing helmet and high vis jacket

RAC research

The RAC conducted research with 2,000 drivers and found that 67% felt the changes needed more publicity, and many (47%) had not made the effort to look into the updates. A minority (27%) thought they were familiar with some or all of the changes. Some local newspapers and news sites reported that the message had reached only some road users, with research by the IAM Roadsmart charity suggesting that as many as seven million drivers were unaware of the changes. The survey is based on 1,000 road users, in which 20% said they didn't know the rules had changed. Put another way, 80% of road users said they did know that the rules had changed.

It's not surprising that the campaign didn’t reach all road users straightaway. It's a long game! The assets developed for the paid-for campaign are now available for others, enabling long-term campaign visibility and facilitating greater reach over time. The message will gradually filter through, and the new rules will become common knowledge.

Those learning to drive now will be the first generation to understand the new-look Highway Code, including these changes, and they will spread the word. I remember arguments with my parents while learning to drive, as I observed rules of which they were unaware. The same is happening now, up and down the UK, as teenagers argue with parents and carers about who has the right of way at a junction or whether it's OK for cyclists to ride two abreast.

The challenges of social marketing

Social marketing is a fascinating discipline. In addition to the challenges of designing communication to reach a vast population, it faces issues of how to measure efficacy, how to sustain behaviour change in the long term and ethical issues around whether it is right for governments and other organisations to tell people how to behave.

In the case of the Highway Code, we shall have to wait to see how effective the campaign has been – there will be statistical evidence around road accidents involving cyclists, horse riders and pedestrians – but the ethical issues are perhaps more clear-cut. If these changes, and the other rules within the Highway Code, save lives, it could be considered ethically sound to require people to follow them.

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About the author

Alison Lawson

Dr Alison Lawson
Head of Discipline of Marketing and Operations

Alison is Head of the Discipline of Marketing and Operations in Derby Business School, working with a team of expert lecturers across marketing, logistics, supply chain, purchasing and information technology management. Alison supervises PhDs in marketing and publishing and contributes to teaching in these areas. Prior to joining the University in 2010, she worked in publishing.

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