The History of Street Lines and Road Signs

It may seem like a strange topic, but it is one that has obviously come up once or twice on a long family road trip. As odd as it sounds, there is actually a history behind the lines that are on our roads and the signs that guide us along the way. Of course, those of us who drive all know the reason why they exist, to keep traffic safe and even. But when did they first appear on our highways?

The First White Line Appeared in the UK

Most roads have lines, unless you take a backroad or gravel road in the country, and they didn’t all show up at the same time. The first white line road marking first appeared way back in 1918 in the United Kingdom. According to Traffic Signs and Meanings, the idea of road markings caught on very quickly, but they weren’t recognized as actual safety precautions to follow until around 1926.

Human Traffic Signals Were Enforced During the 1930s

During the 1930’s the lines on the road had many more benefits than simply telling you how much road you could take up with your car. Way before the first traffic lights were invented, the solid white lines provided drivers with cautionary signals and let them know when to stop and go, these actions were often carried out by policemen who helped to direct traffic at the time.

Yellow Lines Paved the Way for Two-Way Roads

The yellow lines that show up in the middle of the road that tell us which side to stay on and when it is legal to pass another car did not show up until the 1950s. At this time, the two colors were simultaneously used on roads, with white lines directing the traffic heading in the same direction and yellow was used for two-way roads or traffic. It wasn’t until 1956 that dashed lines showed up on highways, bringing a brand new set of rules to follow as you interact with other cars while out on the road.

Lined Roads Make Their Way to the U.S.

The very first lined roads in the United States appeared on Trenton’s River Road in Wayne County, Michigan. The presence of this road dates back to 1911. According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, Edward Hines was the chairman of the Wayne County Board of Roads at the time and he came up with the idea after he watched a leaky milk truck make its way down the road. Hines was later inducted into the Michigan Transportation Hall of Honor for his idea back in 1972.

The Evolution of U.S. Road Signs

After cars made their debut on the road, many drivers were getting lost due to the lack of directional signs on the new roads. Around 1899, Drivers formed clubs and made it their mission to place and maintain street signs. Some clever entrepreneurs even used this opportunity to point drivers toward their businesses.

The very first stop sign debuted in 1915 in Detroit. This was one year after the first electric traffic signal appeared in Cleveland. The first 3-color traffic signal was introduced five years later.

In 1922, road representatives from Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin drove through several states to come up with ideas for uniform signs and street markings. They made it their mission to create a system that would match different shapes to specific messages. They came up with the following…

  • Round: Railroad Crossing
  • Octagon: Stop Sign
  • Diamond: Curve ahead
  • Square: Caution or Attention
  • Rectangle: Mileage and speed limit signs

This code would help make recognizing signs at a glance much easier and more helpful for drivers at night as well. All signs at that time had black text with a white background and were 2 feet in size.

These road sign recommendations were introduced to the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments and later to the American Association of State Highway Officials in 1923.  They soon became the basis for the earliest form of road signs and were made official in 1935. A few decades of confusion followed and it was not until around 1948 that the US government made an effort to simplify each sign.

Stop signs were initially black and white, then yellow on red. The new fade-resistant material that was invented years later led to the creation of the now iconic white on red stop signs that were first used in 1954.

Fun Road Trivia Fact: The dashed lines that you see on the road are actually much longer than you think they are. When you are driving, it is easy to mark these lines as only being a few feet long. However, according to government guidelines, the dashes are actually ten feet in length!