First traffic light installed on August 5, 1914

First traffic light installed on August 5, 1914

First traffic light installed on August 5, 1914

Written by Staff Writer

06 Aug, 2015 | 12:07 pm

As automobiles began to appear in US cities in the 1900s, there was no system for dealing with their speed. Sharing the streets with pedestrians and driving unpredictably, they caused alarming numbers of deaths and crashes. As historian Peter Norton writes in Fighting Traffic, this led the public to generally vilify the car — and prompted police departments to get involved in the business

In many cities, they first did so based on a set of driving rules created by New York businessman William Phelps Eno in 1903. Among other ideas, he suggested traffic circles, one-way streets, pedestrian crosswalks — and for drivers making a left through an intersection, the requirement to turn at a hard right angle.

It might seem minor, but this hard left turns rule was a key way to ensure that cars didn’t smash into each other — and crossing pedestrians — at intersections. With drivers making these kinds of turns, traffic at intersections could flow smoothly for the first time.

At first, police enforced this rule by whistling at cars that cut corners, but in 1904, Eno proposed the idea of building a post in the center of each intersection (marked “C” in the diagram above) with a sign that said “keep right.” New York installed many of these posts — eventually termed “silent policemen” — and was followed by other cities around the US. They were the first real infrastructure aimed at controlling cars — and, as Norton writes, “this humble traffic device marked the victory of common-sense traffic reform where custom alone had proved inadequate.”

At busier intersections, these silent policemen were paired with actual policemen who gave hand signals indicating which lanes had the right of way. Eventually, some cities used devices called semaphores mounted on the center poles. Modeled after railway signals, they could be cranked or turned to show some drivers the word “stop” and others “go.”

But as more and more cars arrived on the roads, standing at the center of a busy intersection became increasingly dangerous. It also gave police a poor view, leading long lines of traffic to form — sometimes trapping fire trucks and ambulances.

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