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All You Wanted to Know About Those Ubiquitous Cones

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Traffic cones, according to manufacturers and distributors of the vinyl pylons that mark the nation’s highways and byways, are like socks. Everybody needs them but they easily get lost.

“People actually pilfer them,” said Bill Cuttill, president of one of four companies that manufacture the bright orange cones. “They’re something that everybody who sees them thinks they have a use for.”

The uses for purloined cones range from toys for horses--which like to pick them up and toss them around--to T-ball stands and soccer field markers.

In Oshkosh, Wis., where Cuttill’s company, Lakeside Plastics, is located, some people put them on docks around Lake Winnebago “because the ducks and sea gulls don’t like the florescent color,” Cuttill said. “They also make a dandy holder for a rummage sale sign.”

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Cuttill estimates that at least 6 million pylons a year are sold throughout the United States. Others in the business say the figure is much higher, but decline to estimate numbers for competitive reasons. The four companies, which have bought out strings of competitors over the years, also do a brisk trade in the international market.

“The business is growing like crazy right now,” said Raeleen Lucas, whose Garden Grove firm R.A. Lucas is a major distributor of traffic cones and other highway safety devices in eight Western states. “So much money is being poured into repairing roads.”

The California Department of Transportation alone purchases about 50,000 cones a year, Lucas said.

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The cones she sells are manufactured by Radiator Specialty in North Carolina, which also has a plant in Napa, Calif. A cone connoisseur can distinguish a Radiator cone made in the South by its black base, as opposed to the California product with an orange base, Lucas said.

Despite such esoteric differences, most traffic cones look alike. Standards for the color, shape and size of the cones are set down in a federal manual for uniform traffic control devices. Cones used at night, for instance, must have two florescent white sleeves, one 6 inches and one 4 inches in width. All of the sleeves are manufactured by 3M Corp.

Cones range in size from 5 inches tall--typically used by police departments to mark evidence at a crime scene--to about 42 inches high. The sizes used most are 12, 18 and 28 inches high. The 18-inch cone, most often seen at road construction projects, can weigh 7 pounds or 10 pounds. The heavier cones are used on freeways to withstand the wash of wind from passing vehicles.

Cones can last anywhere from minutes to decades. “It depends on when the cone is set down and when the first semi driver decides to run over it,” Cuttill said. On the other hand, he still sees cones on the road with the name “Kelch” on them, the Cedarburg, Wis., corporation his company bought out 15 years ago.

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Manufacturers and distributors said there is no exact figure on the number of cones stolen annually, but they estimate at least a million. “Enough to really aggravate our customers,” Cuttill said.

But stealing cones or purposely hitting them with cars are misdemeanor crimes, said Officer Joseph Gomez of the San Fernando Valley Traffic Bureau. He said sections of the vehicle code prohibit “tampering with traffic control devices” and running over markers at scenes of traffic accidents or road construction.

“The perpetrators usually are young kids, juveniles,” Gomez said. “It usually happens at construction sites. They knock them over, then spot us and say, ‘Oh, pooh, there’s an officer.’ ”

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Often, cones are stolen because people don’t know where to buy them, Lucas said, although retailers advertise in phone books under “traffic safety devices.” Two companies based in Orange County are Western Highway Products and Traffic Control Service, which has seven outlets, including stores in Newhall, Anaheim, Riverside and San Diego.

Outlets that sell garden tractors and other equipment dealers also usually have a supply of cones, which cost from $4 to $16 each, depending on size and whether or not they have the florescent white strips. One customer bought the tiny, 5-inch cones, which he imprinted with his name and phone number and sent out like calling cards, to be used as paperweights on desks.

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Lettering can be expensive, though. A master screen with a company’s name costs at least $50.

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No one knows how long traffic cones have been around, but Cuttill remembers seeing objects in the 1920s resembling black bowling balls with kerosene lamps inside. Individual lamps with two 6-volt batteries were used to light orange cones at night before the florescent strips were invented several decades ago, said Wesley Dodds, purchasing manager for Traffic Control Service.

As an aside, Dodds points out that the tall, skinny post that sits on a black rubber base is not a traffic cone, “it’s a delineator.” That device is not as practical as a cone, which can be stacked, “but gives drivers the impression that it might damage their vehicle if hit,” although it’s usually as harmless as a cone.


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