Why Are Stop Signs Red? The Origin of the Popular Traffic Sign
Stop signs: it feels as if they’ve been around since the dawn of the universe. Likewise, it’s hard to believe that the car has only been around for a little over a century. Yet, about 105 years ago, people were driving around in a frenzy, flying by the seats of their pants when it came to motor safety and driver courtesy.
Back in those days, most traffic was a hodgepodge of horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, streetcars, and people marching along streets. While no specific event spurred the creation of traffic signage, the year before the invention of the stop sign had seen a 43% increase in motor vehicle fatalities. With numbers like that, it’s no wonder someone did something about it.
In 1915, the first stop sign was installed in Detroit, Michigan.
A man named William Phelps Eno conceived of the idea to place stop signs at intersections in 1900. He spent his subsequent years vouching for street traffic signage reform. Eventually, people bought into the idea, because…well, who wouldn’t?
As you might expect, the initial iteration was little rough around the edges. In fact, the first stop sign had only four edges; a two by two square sheet of metal preceded the octagon shape we all know and love today.
This miracle of roadside signage also predated color psychology. Eno had only thought to place black text on a white background. Nowadays, we associate that color combination with regulatory signage, including speed limit signs and detour signs.
A standard had to be set.
After 1915, stop signs spread like wildfire. This was a positive outcome, overall; however, no guidelines for their fabrication had been set forth by municipal or federal organizations. So, one might see a stop sign in Detroit with black lettering, a stop sign in Cleveland with yellow lettering, and a stop sign in upstate New York with green lettering.
Without enforceable standards, motorists often couldn’t discern the purpose of faraway signage using shorthand details like shape or color; they had to wait until they were within reading distance to act accordingly. Even worse, drivers came to associate a certain color with a particular action over time. So, a motorist might attempt to stop at yellow sign, even if the sign displayed a conflicting command.
In 1922, the American Association of State Highway Officials (ASHO) selected the octagonal shape to represent the stop sign. Their ideas were simple: the more perilous the hazard, the more sides a traffic sign would have. According to their sensibilities, no sign was more indicative of danger, save for the circular railroad crossing sign.
Let’s be glad they didn’t get too trigger-happy with the integration of shapes. Otherwise, we might be seeing decagon and hendecagon signage on the road today.
Red came last.
Until 1954, stops signs were actually taxi-colored. The MUTCD recommended black lettering on a yellow background in 1935.
The reason had little to do with color association. People in the 1930s felt red was emblematic of restriction or stopping just as much as we do today. But signage manufacturers were unable to fabricate a reflective material that could stay red for any reasonable length of time. This changed with advent of new technologies in the late 1940s.
Stop signs have come a long way since the early 20th century. And, at Signs By Tomorrow Timonium, you can expect them to advance a whole lot further.
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