By now, our society is quite familiar with traffic jams, highways, and the annoyances that come with both.
There is often debate about which cities have the worst traffic, as everyone feels that theirs is the worst during their bouts of road rage.
And we all know how our cities and roadways are laid out nowadays, but how much do you know about the history of our highways and the origins of traffic?
Let’s take a look at the history of the infamous traffic we’ve all experienced on the road.
President Eisenhower’s Inspiration From Germany
When Dwight D. Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, he noticed that Germany had a roadway system known as the Reichsautobahn system.
This was a very early version of Germany’s modern-day autobahn network, which is its own highway system.
He felt that a similar national highway system in America could be extremely useful for national defense.
Implementing the Nation’s First Interstate Highway System
Once he became president in 1953, he assigned General Lucius D. Clay the duty of implementing the country’s own interstate highway system.
Clay determined that a better highway system would be necessary for safety and economic purposes.
Therefore, he came up with a $100 billion plan to build 40,000 miles of highways linking all of America’s major cities (any with a population of at least 50,000 residents) over 10 years.
The Federal Aid Highway Act
When the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways began construction.
Since that name is quite the mouthful, it’s more commonly known as the Interstate Highway System.
Each highway had some requirements: It needed to be a controlled-access highway, have at least four lanes, and have no at-grade crossings.
At-grade crossings are intersections where a highway crosses a railroad.
Even though Eisenhower provided much of the funding for this highway project, he was not actually the first to think up the concept of the interstate highway system.
In fact, the system was first envisioned by the Bureau of Public Roads in 1939.
Communities Protesting Highways: Building on Private Property
Certain parts of the country actually weren’t very happy when construction on the highways began.
Many communities and neighborhoods were disrupted by the construction, and although it certainly was not a major protest, it began the debate on how willing the public was to allow the government to build on private property.
The Early Impact of the Interstate System
Although highways were not new to America at this time, the earliest forms of highways were poorly planned and hard to navigate.
Once the system of highways began to stretch across the entire country, all parts of the country became accessible to anyone with a vehicle built to traverse it.
Therefore, the Interstate Highway System further supported America’s growing culture of driving.
This is something that we still see today, as getting your driver’s license as soon as you turn 16 is encouraged as a means towards more freedom as a young teenager.
The birth of the Interstate Highway also encouraged many businesses to open up on the roadside, such as gas stations, restaurants, and much more.
Even small towns could benefit from the highway system.
Highways and Speed Limits: Big vs. Small Government
We’re all familiar with the fact that speed limits are determined by individual states today, but in the past, specifically between the years 1974 to 1986, the maximum speed limit on any U.S. highway was 55 miles per hour.
This law was set due to the growing cost of fuel, and states were already determining their own speed limits in the early ‘70s.
In 1974, President Nixon officially made the national speed limit 55 miles per hour. Once fuel prices dropped in the ‘80s, the national speed limit on interstates was increased to 65 miles per hour.
Since the very inception of the automobile, there has been a debate about freedom versus regulation regarding speed limits.
Therefore, in 1995, Congress made it so that states could once again be in charge of their maximum speed limit.
Nowadays, over half of the stats have their speed limit set to 70 miles per hour or even higher.
The History of Traffic Lights
Traffic lights were actually invented a long time before cars. The first gas-lit traffic light was used in London in 1868.
It was invented by a British railway engineer named J.P. Knight, who wanted to control the traffic caused by horse carriages and provide safety for pedestrians.
These lights were controlled manually by police officers using semaphore arms in the daytime. At night, the red and green lights that we know today were lit with gas.
Choosing Light Colors and Dealing With Safety Issues
Since red is typically associated with danger or caution, it was the signal used to tell the carriage drivers to stop.
Green is considered to be a safer color in many cultures, which meant it was the go signal.
Many of the gas lights had issues with exploding and injuring the police officers controlling them, which meant they were not very safe to use.
Traffic Lights in America
Back in America in the early 1900s, cities were expanding rapidly, and automobiles were becoming more common, which meant that traffic was becoming an issue.
A policeman named Lester Wire noticed this issue with traffic and came up with the first electric traffic light. It was installed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914.
Believe it or not, today’s traffic system still works the same way as Wire envisioned it back in 1912.
The Yellow Warning Light
The major difference is that we have the yellow light today to indicate the imminent change to red or green.
Back then, the early traffic lights used a buzzing sound to indicate that the signal would change soon.
The yellow warning light concept was patented by an African-American inventor named Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr., in 1923.
Around that same time, a policeman from Detroit named William Potts invented the first four-way and three-colored traffic light, which is the system we use today.
Luke Williams writes and researches for the car insurance comparison site, QuoteInspector.com. His passions include insurance and the history of the automobile.