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Hudson Cooper
Posted 8/20/21

I remember the opening sequence in the television show “The Twilight Zone.” As eerie music played, images such as an eyeball and spinning clocks moved across the black and white screen. …

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I remember the opening sequence in the television show “The Twilight Zone.” As eerie music played, images such as an eyeball and spinning clocks moved across the black and white screen. Eventually the show’s creator and producer, Rod Serling, said, “There’s the signpost up ahead…your next stop, the Twilight Zone.”

Although sometimes dealing with other drivers might seem like an episode of the “Twilight Zone,” you can be assured that certainly there will eventually be a signpost up ahead. That signpost may warn you of upcoming road rules or conditions. You should probably curtail texting long enough to read signs telling you such things as the speed limit or of a curve ahead. On our bucolic roads, signs are also posted warning of possible deer crossing. That sign is for drivers; deer cannot read.

Road signs are a necessity. In fact, they have been used to assist travelers for a long time. I contacted an old friend, Bob Placard, who is a consultant with the Bureau of Stop Signs Management And Notifications, known in the business as BOSSMAN.

According to Bob, cave etchings made during the Bronze Age, show signs carved into stone that seem to indicate a warning about wooly mammoths in the area. Although I am sure those “Wooly Mammoth Crossing” alerts were helpful, signs as we know them really hit the road during the Roman ages.      

Their legendary building of roads, bridges and tunnels helped the Romans expand their influence in the world. Their first major road built in 312 BC was the Appian way. To keep track of their progress, they erected mile markers on stone tablets announcing how far you were from Rome. Seeing those markers must have relieved returning soldiers. Even though they believed that “all roads lead to Rome,” it must have been reassuring that they did not make a wrong turn at Constantinople. But I imagine most of the weary marching legionnaires suffered from chariot envy.

Speeding into the history of road signs in America, we slam on the brakes in 1902. That year AAA was formed to begin putting up signs on our growing system of roads. The first stop signs popped up in Detroit, Michigan in 1915.

Detroit was the natural place because six years earlier Ford began rolling out the first mass produced car, the Model T. Old photos and newsreels show Model T’s coming off the assembly line one after another. Imagine the pile up of cars as they tried to navigate streets without any stop signs.

The first electric stoplight was installed in Detroit in 1914, a year before the stop sign. Soon municipalities realized that the cheaper wooden stop sign served a similar purpose and was easier to install.

The first stop signs looked nothing like todays. Black lettering on a white background was on a 2 feet by 2 feet square. As more and more cars hit the road, they also began to hit one another. Coming to an intersection you had to take your eyes off the road to find if there was a stop sign among the various other square road signs with black lettering on a white background. One partial innovation came in 1935 when stop signs were made in the octagonal design we still see today.    

Trying to solve the road sign confusion, the stop sign was uniformly given a yellow background to make it stand out at intersections. However, the big innovation came in 1954 when octagonal stop signs were given their bright red background color to conform to the red light on the stoplights. The red stop sign was also easier to see at night.

We rely on road signs every time we drive. But one road sign may still confuse drivers. When you see a sign that reads “Do Not Pass” it does not mean there is a Dunkin’ drive-thru up ahead.


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