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America’s First Traffic Signal – Dale’s Daily Data


(Getty Images)

Can you imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have any traffic laws or rules?  No speed limit signs.  No stop signs.  No traffic lights.  That’s pretty much what it was like in the early years after the car was invented.  You had cars, bicycles, horses, trolleys and pedestrians all competing for right of way.

As horse-drawn carriages gradually disappeared it helped the situation, but it was clear that a system of regulations was needed to keep traffic moving and reduce the number of accidents on the roads.

  • The first traffic island to separate traffic at corners debuted in San Francisco in 1907.
  • Driving on the left side of a car became standard in 1908.
  • The first painted center dividing line appeared in Michigan in 1911.
  • The first “No Left Turn” sign debuted right here in Buffalo in 1916.

How about the first traffic signal?  On the side of some roads in London as early as 1868 there were poles with moveable arms.  If the arm was horizontal it meant stop.  If the arm was at a 45-degree angle it meant caution.  If the arm was up it meant go.

Most historians agree it was a device that appeared at the intersection of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland, Ohio that’s recognized as the first electric traffic signal because it was granted a patent.  It had four pairs of red and green lights, each mounted on a corner post.  It was connected to a control booth where somebody was able to push buttons to turn the signals from green to red.

That first traffic signal started controlling traffic in Cleveland on this date in 1914.

I came across an incredible video of San Francisco’s Powell Street shot from the front of a cablecar in 1906, four days before the Great San Francisco Earthquake.  It gives you an idea of what traffic was like back in the early 1900’s with cars, trucks, bicycles, carts pulled by horses and people going every which way.  I don’t see any traffic control devices of any type in the entire video.  Absolutely fascinating.

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