Drivers Learn Not to Cross That Line When They Come to It


Leave it to New York.

When Big Apple bigwigs first painted lines in the streets of Manhattan to control traffic in the 1920s, cops were stationed at intersections to answer the questions of puzzled motorists. Ever so politely, the gun-toting officers let it be known that they were authorized to shoot out the tires of any driver who dared to cross the white line without first coming to a halt.

Times have changed, and the once curious lines have become essential fixtures on roads, highways and even parking lots, telling drivers where to go, how to go and what not to do--all in a symbolic shorthand of yellow and white.

Traffic engineers estimate that just adding lines to an unmarked street can increase traffic capacity as much as 40%. Anyone who has ever driven on a freshly paved road without the lines knows how confusing simple trips can become.

In the days of horses and surreys, streets didn't really need to be delineated, in part because so few people had them. Even in the horse's heyday, Manhattan--which had the largest equine population in the United States--was home to only about 120,000 horses pulling about 60,000 vehicles.

But the automobile explosion turned tranquil highways and byways into congested and confusing concourses of exhaust and noise. Streets were seen as places of chaos and some towns banned cars because of their detrimental impact on public life.

Photos from the early days of the century show open-air cars jammed together alongside carriages and horses. Even in some stark sketches by famed architect Le Corbusier, the buildings are well ordered, but the unstriped streets are full of cars going this way and that.

Among the first to recognize the problem was Newton H. Moore of Zanesville, Ohio, one of the first residents of Muskingum County to own a car.

In 1914, Moore suggested painting lines on highways and wrote to Ohio's secretary of state with a plan that was quickly put into action across Ohio and the world.

"It was not until a few years ago," read Moore's 1941 obituary in the Zanesville Times, "that he was given full credit for the worldwide practice of marking traffic lanes in streets and highways."

But Clay McShane, an urban history professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said that while Moore may have been one of the pioneers, he was not the first to see the road ahead neatly marked.

McShane said the first highway center line was painted on a narrow stretch of road in Wayne County, Mich., outside Detroit in 1911. It was painted across a narrow overpass "where the margin of error was small" and within weeks was extended up and down the highway.

In 1913, New York painted the first crosswalks at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street.

As time passed and the field of traffic engineering emerged, lines came into widespread use around the world. But often, the designations varied from state to state or even town to town. Then in 1925, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover convened the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety to set national standards.

"That was the big pioneering conference that set the standards for this stuff," McShane said.

The lines as we know them today were born. Double yellow. Broken white. Solid white. Crosswalks.

About 30 years later, the United Nations convened a similar conference to adopt worldwide standards. That's why, with only a few variations, the markings in Toledo, Ohio, will match the markings in Tuscany, Italy.

For many years, the lines were painted in white paint because it was most visible in dark and inclement weather. In the 1930s, reflectorized paint was developed. In Los Angeles, as in many cities, paint is no longer used.

Street lines today are laid with special machines applying a reflective plastic that sticks to the pavement and lasts longer than paint, said city transportation engineer Irwin Chodash.

Although the rules remain the same as they did in the early days, the penalties are neither as stiff nor as swift as they were. Cops these days are more likely to hand out tickets for crossing the center line than they are to shoot out the tires of offenders.

Aaron Curtiss can be reached via the Internet at

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