Traffic Light Traffic Light The traffic light has been helping keep roads safe for over 100 years. (Photo: leungchopan / Shutterstock)

6 fun facts about traffic lights

The traffic control device is 101 years old today.

On Aug. 5, 1914, a four-way traffic signal was installed in the busy Cleveland, Ohio, intersection of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street. Why was this seemingly mundane event 101 years ago important? Because it was the first electric traffic signal that resembles what's seen all over the world today. It wasn't automatic; it was operated by a police officer in a booth. And there were only red and green lights. But for all intents and purposes, it was the first-ever modern traffic light.

Cleveland first traffic signalA shot of Euclid and East 105th in Cleveland, where the first permanent traffic signal was installed. (Photo: "The American City and County Vol. 13" via Google Books)

Other attempts had been made to control traffic via light signals, but they were miserable failures: a gas-powered traffic signal installed in London in the 1860s exploded, and a device created by Lester Wire in Salt Lake City in 1912 was considered temporary. The one installed in Cleveland two years later was the first one that was a permanent fixture from a patented design.

In honor of the centennial-plus-one anniversary of the traffic light, here are some fun facts about the object that keeps our roads from being utter chaos.


The yellow light didn't exist until the 1920s.

With only a red and green signal, drivers didn't have an interval to slow down, save a warning whistle or buzzer. On busy and noisy intersections, that system caused plenty of accidents. In 1920, a Detroit police officer named William Potts added the yellow (or amber) signal to warn drivers. Of course, today some drivers consider the amber light a signal to go even faster in order to beat the red light, as Jeff Bridges states in the classic clip from "Starman" above. The yellow signal was patented in 1923 by a man named Garrett Morgan, who sold the patent to General Electric.


You can see the red light sooner than you can see the green light.

traffic light sculptureA traffic light tree sculpture in London. (Photo: William Warby/Flickr)

The traffic light was modeled after the signals used on railroad tracks and crossings. There's little evidence as to why the colors red and green were chosen to represent "stop" and "go." But science has validated the decision: because red light has a longer wavelength than green, it can be seen from farther away. The sooner you see the light, the sooner you hit the brakes.


There are traffic lights on the Garden State Parkway (but not for long).

Traffic Light Garden State ParkwayOne of the traffic lights near the southern end of the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. (Photo: William F. Yurasko/Flickr)

Visitors to the Jersey Shore are usually shocked to see that, after speeding (or on weekends, crawling) down the Garden State Parkway, they're faced with a series of traffic lights at the highway's southernmost end, near Cape May. How in the world are there traffic lights on one of the busiest highways in the country? The stretch of highway was built in the 1940s and incorporated into the Parkway when it was built in the '50s. After decades of consternation from visitors and frustration from residents, the signals are finally coming down, with the last of them scheduled to be taken out of service later this year.


There was a sitcom called 'Traffic Light.'

Keshet created an Israeli sitcom called "Traffic Light," about three college friends in various life stages: Married with kids ("red light"), moving in with his girlfriend ("yellow light") and perpetually single ("green light"). Why those signals aren't reversed, we have no idea. The show ran for 51 episodes between 2008 and 2014, and it was adapted for U.S. audiences by FOX. The American version ran from February to May 2011.


The world's oldest traffic light is in Ashville, Ohio.

Oldest traffic lightThis rocket-shaped traffic light is the oldest one still in operation, according to officials in Ashville, Ohio. (Photo: Dan O'Brien/Flickr)

Unless some other town steps up and makes the claim, the world's oldest operational traffic light resides in Ashville, Ohio. It was installed in 1932, and it looked a bit odd by any standard; more like an Art Deco-era rocket ship than a rectangular box. And the lights appeared via a radar-like swipe. But it continues to operate more than 80 years after it was installed, directing people in the town's historical museum.


Future traffic lights will sync with your phone ... or even talk to your car.

EnLighten BMW The EnLighten app taps into city traffic management systems to give drivers traffic light status. The system is being tested in BMW cars. (Photo: Courtesy of Connected Signals)

While the traffic light seems like it's seemingly unchanged since the invention of the amber light, it's evolved over the decades to be a cutting-edge technological device, sporting energy-saving LEDs, and being controlled by massive central traffic management centers in most cities. Now, the technology is set to take a big leap.

A Korean firm, for instance, is designing a light to display news headlines to keep drivers from distractedly looking at their phones at a red light. England's Newcastle University is testing a system that will "talk" to your car's navigation system, which will display how fast the driver needs to travel to avoid red lights. And EnLighten has developed an app that coordinates with a city's traffic management system to let drivers know the status of nearby lights. They make a standalone iOS app and one that integrates with BMW's navigation system.

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