A brief history of the stop sign

A brief history of the stop sign

There weren’t always traffic signs to keep roads safe. This fascinating article describes a world before street signs, and the development of one of the most culturally ingrained signs on the road: the stop sign.

In the early automobile age, American streets existed in a Hobbesian, drive-or-be-plastered state of anarchy. “Not only were the streets in those days completely disgusting and filthy, but there were horses and bicycles, and it was just completely chaotic,” says Joshua Schank, C.E.O. of the Eno Transportation Foundation, whose namesake and founder, William Phelps Eno, is widely credited with conceiving the stop sign at the turn of the 20th century.

At a time when there were no driver’s licenses, speed limits or clear lane demarcations, the notion of a stop sign was revolutionary. In fact, aside from the occasional road markers letting riders on horseback know how far they were from the next city, there was no road or street signage at all. Eno, scion of a wealthy New England family who never learned to drive, helped change all that. In a 1900 article titled “Reforming Our Street Traffic Urgently Needed,” for Rider and Driver magazine, he proposed placing stop signs at intersections. It was a civilizing notion.“That was a new concept and really did introduce the idea that you had to watch out for other people,” Schank says.

Eno became a key figure in a traffic-control awakening that would make great strides in the early 20th century. In 1911, a Michigan road got a center line. In 1915, Cleveland received an electric traffic signal. Detroit, the center of the automobile industry, is credited with installing the first proper stop sign that same year. According to Schank, it took the form of a 2-by-2-feet sheet of metal with black lettering on a white background.

We have the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments to thank for the stop sign’s iconic shape. In 1923, the association developed an influential set of recommendations about street-sign shapes whose impact is still felt today. The recommendations were based on a simple, albeit not exactly intuitive, idea: the more sides a sign has, the higher the danger level it invokes. By the engineers’ reckoning, the circle, which has an infinite number of sides, screamed danger and was recommended for railroad crossings. The octagon, with its eight sides, was used to denote the second-highest level. The diamond shape was for warning signs. And the rectangle and square shapes were used for informational signs. “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.

It took a bit longer to determine the stop sign’s color. It wasn’t until 1935 that traffic engineers created the first uniform standards for the nation’s road signage, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. It was 166 pages long and recommended a yellow stop sign with black letters. The 1954 revision, however, called for the stop sign to be red with white letters, in step with the color-coding system developed for the railroad and traffic signals. “Red has always been associated with stop,” Hawkins explains. “The problem was they could not produce a reflective material in red that would last. It just was not durable until companies came up with a product in the late ’40s, early ’50s.” Today the stop sign is so ingrained in collective international driving culture that some experts are, counterintuitively, recommending doing away with it entirely. (Ejby, Denmark; Ipswich, England; and Ostend, Belgium, are already experimenting with a post-stop-sign world.) “The theory is that people will pay more attention to pedestrians and other vehicles and slow down in pedestrian areas if there are no signs, because they won’t know what to do,” Schank says. “That wouldn’t be possible if [Eno] hadn’t first introduced the stop sign.”