Street, Road, and Traffic Signs – A History from Early Rome to Today
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are over 4 million miles of public roads in the United States. And with 228.2 million licensed drivers in 2020 and increasing numbers each year, traffic signs and street signage are more critical than ever in helping drivers navigate roadways so they can reach their destination safely.
Although the first roads constructed in the world were made during the Bronze Age, the first use of street signs can be traced back to the Roman Empire. The earliest Roman road built was the famous Appian Way in 312 B.C. The Romans erected mile markers at the intersections of the Appian Way, indicating the distance to Rome; these milestones were the first road signs.
Early Roadway Signs in the United States
Fast forward to the early 19th century when bicycles were a popular mode of transportation. Signs were posted along roads to help warn cyclists of upcoming hazards or steep hills. As the century progressed, transportation progress had people ready to travel. With the invention of the automobile in the late 1800s, street signs were even more of a necessity. Road systems began to evolve, and signage was installed along roadways indicating directions and distances to different cities. As early as 1899, automobile clubs placed signs along busy roads to help guide travelers to their destinations. Because each motor club installed its own unique signage, multiple signs weren’t uncommon at a single location. It wasn’t long before traffic chaos ensued.
The MUTCD Standardizes Street and Highway Signs
Early signs were constructed of hand-painted wood on iron columns, but in 1915 the first metal stop sign was made and installed in Detroit, Michigan. Within just a few short years, in 1923, the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments (MVASHD) agreed that sign uniformity was needed to eliminate confusion on the roadways and help drivers navigate safely. The MVASHD settled on six distinct shapes for various traffic signs. These signs were to have white backgrounds with black block lettering or symbols and were 24 inches in size. In 1935 the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) was published. In the manual, signs were classified as regulatory, warning, or guide signs, and the recommendation was made that stop signs be illuminated at night as an added safety precaution. Forty placards were illustrated in this first edition manual, with more signs to come.
Over the next 60 years, traffic signs and street signage changed in color, size, and design. A round letter alphabet replaced the standard block lettering, sign legends were simplified by eliminating unnecessary wording or by replacing words with symbols, and a minimum level of retro-reflectivity was established to be maintained for all signs on public roads.
Currently, there are over 500 federally approved street signs or placards in the United States. Present-day sign colors and shapes indicate messages of warning, guidance, and service, as well as recreation, construction, and evacuation. Each street sign is designed to instantly communicate a message to the driver to help them safely and skillfully navigate the roadways. Traffic sign improvements have been significant since those first milestone markers in ancient Rome. As technology advances, the design and effectiveness of street signs will continue to evolve while prioritizing the efficiency and safety of travel.
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