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Why we need traffic signs

Whenever scientists want to know the effect a new medicine or innovative therapy, they look for a control group: someone who hasn’t been affected by the medicine. If we want to know what effect traffic signage has on our lives, we have a control group, imperfect but nonetheless well recorded: the world before the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

Established in the late 1920s, the MUTCD standardized the signage in most of the U.S., giving us a reasonably consistent set of rules to follow. Before the MUTCD, though, stop signs barely existed. They were actually one of the final varieties to be put in place, because few enough cars were on the road that having to stop was seen as a massive inconvenience, an impediment to the heady rush of freedom granted by the ability to travel by motorcar. Other important traffic safety signs (like railroad crossing signs) were designed by the municipality or the private rail company, and looked completely different from town to town, so there wasn’t a consistent set of shapes or symbols for drivers to look for. The farther drivers travelled from home, the easier it was to get lost because of increasingly divergent signage, creating an ever wider gap between driver’s needs and their comprehension. Even something as simple as where to put a street sign, so that the driver always know to look, reduces the cognitive load as driving in a new area, and that reduces accidents. Those simple standards that we take for granted didn’t exist in the first few years of Before driving conventions were firmly in place, drivers’ habits endangered each other and themselves in ways we might find horrifying today. It took several decades for drivers to begin driving on one side of the road with any consistency – after all, when “horseless carriages” were travelling along at sub-30mph speeds, they were traversing converted horse-and-buggy lanes, not today’s sprawling asphalt highways.

If you saw another driver approaching at a 90-degree angle, you might slow down and let them pass, but according to the Boston Globe, there wasn’t even a widely recognized convention in place for handling intersecting traffic until the nineteen-teens. Drivers typically used bells to signal to each other when they were in danger of crashing, and which driver would make it through first was anyone’s guess. The roads themselves were of such poor quality that driving from state to state almost invariably meant changing tires several times along the way.

So the traffic signs and regulations we follow today are an almost unqualified blessing –if we’re in an accident today, it’s usually possible to discern whose fault it was, and even if we may not always like the speed limit, at least we always have one, and know what it is.

Traffic Warning Signs
Standardized signs are designed to give today’s drivers an advantage over pre-MUTCD drivers with improved reaction time and clarity.
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