Traffic Safety History

April 18, 2024
Innovation has been crucial to saving lives and improving congestion

By Mark Ludewig, Contributing Author

The history of traffic safety is much longer than you might think. This story begins 2,500 years ago, and it examines the evolution of technology and innovation that has enhanced safety.

Built in 312 B.C. as a supply route, the Appian Way was civilization’s first road. As more roads popped up to connect new territories, early engineers were wise to design them to accommodate the width of two carts going in each direction while including sidewalks for pedestrians — smart!

From Blockages to Bridge Flow 

The good: The London Bridge was an engineering marvel that enabled people in the 1700s to cross the Thames River without a boat.

The bad: It was the only route over the Thames at the time, and rush hour was accidentally invented.

In 1749, some 8,000 people caused a three-hour traffic jam returning home from a concert and fireworks. (Imagine if the Beatles had existed then!)

The response: Traffic police were assigned to London Bridge to alleviate future congestion and accidents. The solution worked. By 1896, 8,000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles crossed the bridge every hour. 

Speed Limits and Traffic Signals. 

In England, the Locomotive Act of 1865 mandated that any vehicle not propelled by an animal have a flag bearer 60 yards ahead to warn others of its approach.

The first speed limits––4 mph on the open road and 2 mph in the cities––ensured streets wouldn’t turn into dragstrips anytime soon.

And the first traffic signals, operated by police and using arms marked “stop” and “go,” helped control traffic and avoid any “high-speed” collisions. 

In the 20th Century, these signals became electric traffic lights, the first of which appeared in Cleveland.

Inventor Garret Morgan even took it a step further, adding a yellow caution light. 

Uncle Sam Behind the Wheel 

The development of the national interstate system in the 1950s gave rise to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) in 1967.

Less than a decade later, Minnesota leveraged the latest technology–-such as ramp meters, cameras, traffic speed sensors, electronic signs, HOV bypass lanes and a dedicated traffic center––to improve traffic flow along Route 35. 

A New Outlook on Safety 

In the modern era, the realm of traffic management is undergoing a profound digital transformation.

This evolution is driven by a convergence of GPS-supported traffic applications, digital signage tailored for motorists, Automated Flagger Assistance Devices (AFADs), and even the integration of aerial drones.

These technologies collectively aim to optimize traffic flow amidst increasingly congested roads, presenting innovative solutions to mitigate challenges. 

Furthermore, the advent of groundbreaking tools, like AI-assisted traffic simulation software, empowers traffic management engineers and construction crews with invaluable data and predictive insights.

This proactive approach enables them to optimize traffic patterns and enhance safety measures preemptively, thereby addressing potential issues before they escalate. 

Professional traffic management companies are at the forefront of this transformation. Through a fusion of established best practices and cutting-edge tools, these companies are reshaping services in work zones.

This holistic approach not only ensures enhanced safety protocols, but also contributes significantly to the efficiency and effectiveness of traffic management in today's dynamic landscape. 

The evolution of traffic management has always prioritized safety as its core principle. From the inception of two-way roads and the implementation of signals to the introduction of speed limits and signage, historical innovations have laid the groundwork for the emergence of new technologies.

These advancements work harmoniously with traditional methods, creating a comprehensive approach to enhancing traffic flow while safeguarding lives on the road. RB

Mark Ludewig is AWP Safety’s vice president of Safety. AWP Safety plans and coordinates work zone projects requiring the use of sophisticated traffic control devices. 

Sponsored Recommendations

The Science Behind Sustainable Concrete Sealing Solutions

Extend the lifespan and durability of any concrete. PoreShield is a USDA BioPreferred product and is approved for residential, commercial, and industrial use. It works great above...

Proven Concrete Protection That’s Safe & Sustainable

Real-life DOT field tests and university researchers have found that PoreShieldTM lasts for 10+ years and extends the life of concrete.

Revolutionizing Concrete Protection - A Sustainable Solution for Lasting Durability

The concrete at the Indiana State Fairgrounds & Event Center is subject to several potential sources of damage including livestock biowaste, food/beverage waste, and freeze/thaw...

The Future of Concrete Preservation

PoreShield is a cost-effective, nontoxic alternative to traditional concrete sealers. It works differently, absorbing deep into the concrete pores to block damage from salt ions...