The stop sign is a very recognizable signal on the road that many of us take for granted. Not only is it bright red, standing out among a sea of vehicles, but it’s also the only eight-sided road sign you’ll see. So, why do stop signs have eight sides?
Here is the history behind of one of the most recognized warnings on the road, including a few other interesting facts about stop signs.
History of Stop Signs
Do you think that your morning commute is bad? It’s probably nothing compared to American roads at the turn of the 20th century.
While driving exams, learner’s permits, and road signs are the norm during the present day, things were much more lax a century ago. Drivers weren’t required to have a license to get behind the wheel, speed limits were nonexistent, the roads didn’t have any lane lines to guide cars, and stop signs were nowhere to be found on street corners.
However, as cars became more prevalent, the first signals to help guide drivers would begin to appear throughout the United States. In 1914, the first electric traffic signal was installed in Cleveland. The first official stop sign appeared in Detroit in 1915, though many drivers wouldn’t recognize it today. The sign was small, white, and square – hardly noticeable while on the road.
Similar stop signs would begin to pop up elsewhere in the U.S., but there were no real standards for what they looked like. Because of the lack of uniformity, road signs in general were hard to follow because they might look different depending on what city or town you were in.
Why Do Stop Signs Have Eight Sides?
In 1922, representatives from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Minnesota toured several states in order to generate ideas for uniform signs and street markings, which they felt would make them easier for everyone to follow. They ultimately reasoned that the shape of road signs should be changed to clearly announce what type of hazard was ahead.
The hierarchy that they developed was:
- Circle: Considered to have infinite sides, this announced the riskiest of hazards ahead, such as railroad crossings.
- Octagon: Signaling the second riskiest hazard, such as an intersection. This is where the stop sign comes into play.
- Diamond: These signs signaled conditions that were considered to be less hazardous, such as a caution sign.
- Rectangles: Instead of a hazard, these signs were used to communicate information.
These lawmakers would eventually present their recommendations to the American Association of State Highway Officials. They would become the basis for the earliest standardized national road signs, which became official in 1935.
As you can see, the road sign hierarchy hasn’t changed much in the present day.
Why Are Stop Signs Red?
On to the next question – why are stop signs red? This change didn’t take place until 1935, when traffic engineers created a set of uniform standards for the nation’s signage. Called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the guide was 166 pages long and recommended that stop signs be bright yellow with black lettering.
However, in 1954, the manual instead recommended that the sign be red with white lettering. This matched the color-coding systems used for traffic and railroad signals, which used red to tell drivers and conductors to stop.
Why Are Stop Signs In English In Some Foreign Countries?
If you journey to another county, especially those in Europe, you’ll discover that a majority of stop signs are in English.
With more than 50 official languages used throughout Europe, the stop sign required some type of regulation in order to be easily recognized by a variety of drivers. The word “Stop” has become almost a symbol unto itself, instantly understood by a majority of drivers on the road. It is often used in lieu of symbols such as an outstretched hand. This makes driving more straightforward for both locals and tourists, ensuring that traffic continues smoothly and drivers remain safe.
The next time you’re on your commute to work or heading out on a road trip, take a moment to be thankful that the stop sign is so instantly recognizable. With eight sides and a bright red hue, it is an efficient way to prompt drivers to stop at intersections and keep traffic flowing safely.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.