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Some of you may remember the days before traffic signals. Life was good.

You’d ride your horse up to an intersection, glance around, and continue on your way. It never crossed your mind that another horse might run into you. Horse accidents were unheard of.

Horses are smart — they refuse to run into each other. They are alert and make good decisions (i.e., “horse sense”).

But, replace the horse with a car and ask a human to make decisions. We all know what happens — almost overnight we needed stop signs, lane lines, traffic signals, etc. Not every human is as smart as a horse.

The most famous invention was the traffic signal. The first traffic signals were gas-fueled and controlled by a police officer. In 1868, the first gas-lit traffic lights were installed outside the Houses of Parliament in London. This was proposed by a British railway engineer, J.P Knight.

Being gas-fueled, they would sometimes explode. But then, in 1912, an American policeman, Lester Wire, came up with the idea of the first electric traffic light.

It had two lights, red and green. Instead of a yellow light, it had a buzzer that would sound indicating the light was about to change.

But in 1920, another policeman named William Potts, from Detroit, invented the first three-colored traffic light. This idea of having a third “warning” light was also patented by businessman Garrett Augustus Morgan Sr. in 1923.

Similar to the days when the horse made our “driving” decisions, autonomous cars are gradually fulfilling that same role. Essentially, 100% of automobile accidents are a result of human error. Taking the human out of that equation, once again, is the answer to improving automobile safety.


Chet Skwarcan is president of Traffic Engineering, Inc. in Danville. He is an Indiana traffic engineer with more than 30 years of experience solving traffic problems statewide.

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