Stop, In the Name of Love

By | June 19, 2015

It would seem The X Files is coming back to TV. As a big fan of the original back in the 1990s, I have mixed feelings about its return, a combination of anticipation and dread. Recently I was watching a few old episodes and admittedly, in some ways, it really hasn’t aged very well. And long story arcs tended to fizzle out and disappear, as if kidnapped by aliens. Still, it had that certain je ne sais quoi.

The show used to poke occasional fun at what was supposedly a real “alien autopsy” videotape—Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?—that the Fox network aired in 1995. It was said to have been shot in 1947 following what some believed to have been the crash and recovery of an extraterrestrial spacecraft in Roswell, N.M., and it depicted a rubbery alien being, well, autopsied. The debunkings began almost immediately. All sorts of holes could be poked into, certainly the alien, but also the veracity of the tape itself. One interesting one, however, came via a letter that appeared in Skeptical Inquirer magazine at the height of alien autopsy fever. It pointed out one overlooked detail in the video: a bit of OSHA signage seen in the background.

During the early 1980s I was responsible for re-signing a large industrial facility in southern California to bring the various hazard signs up to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirements for that time. This involved the review and replacement of signs indicating dangerous and hazardous environments in and around the facility.

When I first saw the “Alien Autopsy” film, I felt that the Danger sign looked all too familiar. I decided to research the graphic format of the sign. This involved an archival search with OSHA and an additional search of the ANSI (American National Standard Institute) archives. The results were most interesting: they confirmed what I originally suspected. The graphic format used in the Danger sign was adopted by ANSI in 1967, Ref. ANSI index Z53.1-1967, and approved for OSHA in 1973, with implementation to be achieved by 1983, Ref. OSHA index 1910.145.

All said and done, it is very unlikely that a sign with a graphic design originating in 1967 would be available for use in a 1940s environment or film.

The devil’s in the details.

Signage. We often take it for granted, and it seems an appropriate time to commemorate the fact that 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of a sign we see every day and is recognized virtually everywhere in the world, even if not everyone obeys it: the Stop sign.

First appearing in Detroit, Mich., in 1915, the original Stop sign was a 2-foot by 2-foot sheet of metal with “Stop” written in black letters on a white background. The birth of such traffic signage in Detroit makes sense; it was the center of the nascent automobile industry, and as the number of vehicles on the road began to increase, there was the correspondingly increasing need to regulate traffic. At the time, there really were no traffic control mechanisms in existence at all, and traffic was quickly becoming a nightmarish, chaotic free-for-all. Kind of like Massachusetts.

It was in 1923 that the Stop sign became octagonal, and for a rather abstruse reason: the idea at the time was that the number of sides a sign had communicated its level of importance or potential peril. A circle, strictly speaking, has an infinite number of sides, and communicated (the thinking went) the highest level of danger and thus caution. So circular signs were used for railroad crossings.

The octagon, having eight sides, albeit a few less than infinity, was used for “second-tier” danger levels like intersections. Thus, it was deemed perfect for the Stop sign. Diamonds were used for lesser warnings and square and rectangular signs for informational signage, even though diamonds, squares, and rectangles all have the same number of sides.

“You have to realize this was done by engineers, and engineers can be overly analytical,” says Gene Hawkins, a professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University and the nation’s pre-eminent expert on the history of the stop sign.

True dat.

The shape of the Stop sign was determined some time before its color. For a while, it was black text on a yellow background and, in fact, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the Stop sign turned red—primarily because signmakers couldn’t find a red reflective material that was durable enough for outdoor applications. So we can thank signage substrate manufacturers for the color of the modern Stop sign.

It was primarily the advent of the automobile that triggered the need for traffic control signage and signaling. The first non-electric traffic signals were installed in London outside the houses of Parliament in the 1860s to control horse-drawn traffic. Gas-powered, they had the unfortunate tendency to leak and explode—very bad form. So they were rather quickly discontinued. The first electric, non-exploding traffic light was installed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914, by which time horseless traffic was on the rise.

It was the age of the bicycle, though, that changed the demands for traffic signage.

As far back as ancient Rome, traffic signage consisted of little more than “milestones,” markers or columns that offered directions and/or distances to destinations. By the Middle Ages, as the number of roads and thus intersections increased, multidirectional signs were used to send travelers the right way. In 1686, in Lisbon, Portugal, the narrowness of some city streets led King Peter II to install the first “right of way” signage—one, which still exists, reads, “Year of 1686. His Majesty commands all coaches, seges and litters coming from Salvador’s entrance to back up to the same part.” (Maybe something got lost in translation, but it’s still clearer than some New York City parking signs.)

In the late 19th century, bicycling became all the rage. The earliest bikes were a bit ungainly and difficult to control, but people still liked to ride at high speed on unfamiliar roads. Cycling organizations took it upon themselves to post signs warning of upcoming dangers, like hills, bridges, and other potential hazards. Think of it as the first crowdsourcing of traffic information, a kind of primitive Waze.

Traffic signage is still evolving, and whilst we don’t often think about it beyond the extent we need to either comply with the law (or disregard it) or find our way someplace, highway departments have had to adapt traffic signage to changes in automobile headlight design (all traffic signage is required to have a precise degree of reflectivity at night—not too faint, and not too blinding) and the next challenge in traffic signage is adapting it to an aging population. According to the DOT, there were 34 million licensed older (65+) drivers in 2010 (which are the latest data available), which was a 22% increase from 2001. These older drivers comprised 16% of all licensed drivers in 2010, up from 14% in 2001. The percentage of older drivers on the road will only increase in the next decade.

Perhaps if self-driving cars ever become viable and widespread (I have my doubts, but it would be nice), maybe we won’t even need traffic signage anymore.

 

References:

Hilary Greenbaum and Dana Rubinstein, “The Stop Sign Wasn’t Always Red,” New York Times, December 9, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/11/magazine/stop-sign.html.

Traffic Safety Facts, U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, July 2012, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811640.pdf.

“Traffic Sign,” last modified June 2, 2015, accessed June 8, 2015, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traffic_sign.

“Westminster Road Semaphore,” Victoria County History, http://www.victoriacountyhistory.ac.uk/explore/items/westminster-road-semaphore.

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