In the early 1900s, on the streets of America’s cities were automobiles, horse-drawn carriages, bicyclists, trolley cars and pedestrians, all of which believing they had the right of way. This, of course, lent itself to thousands of collisions every year, many of which were fatal. In 1913, the same year that Model T’s started to roll off Henry Ford’s assembly line, there were 4000 traffic-related fatalities alone. Clearly a solution needed to be developed.
A Cleveland engineer named James Hoge had a solution for all this chaos. Borrowing the red and green signals long used by railroads, and tapping into the electricity that ran through the trolley lines, Hoge created the first “traffic control system.” It was based on red and green lights.
Hoge’s system made its debut in Cleveland in 1914. Drivers approaching the intersection now saw two lights suspended above it. A policeman sitting in a booth on the sidewalk controlled the red and green signals with a flip of a switch. Some time later, William Potts, a Detroit police officer, suggested adding a yellow light to signal that the red light was about to come on.
By 1930, all major American cities and many small towns had at least one electric traffic signal. The simple device reduced motor vehicle fatality rates in the United States by more than 50 percent between 1914 and 1930. And the technology became a symbol of progress.
However, not everyone was thrilled with traffic lights. Some lamented the device’s unfortunate impact on civility. Long before today’s epidemic of road rage, critics warned that drivers had surrendered some of their humanity; they didn’t have to acknowledge each other or pedestrians at intersections, but rather just stare at the light and wait for it to change.
Today the red, yellow and green traffic signal “rules” have become engrained in everyday life. In the mid-1900s, a Cleveland teacher invented a game using traffic signal colors; today, kids still play a version of it: Red Light, Green Light. Today the traffic light symbol had been incorporated into children’s entertainment and toys. Heeding the signals has become so ingrained that it governs all kinds of non-driving behavior. Elementary schools put the brakes on bad behavior with traffic light flashcards, and a pediatrician created the “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right” program to promote healthful eating. Our technical source at CrossPointe Motor Cars (Winchester, VA), pointed out that you can even find the colorful cues on the soccer field: A referee first issues a yellow warning card before holding up the red card, which tells the offending player they have to leave the field.
In a century the traffic light went from a traffic control contraption to a pervasive feature of everyday life—there are some two million of them in the United States today—and a powerful symbol.