Sunday, January 9, 2011

Doing time at a traffic light

I drove southwest on Helena Avenue through falling snow, pulling to a stop behind two other cars at Malfunction Junction - a five-legged monster further complicated (the way I was going) by yet another traffic light just a few hundred feet ahead and quick to turn red.

I was sitting at the longest red light in town. I knew this because, about a quarter century ago, I wrote a feature story about Helena's traffic signals. Settling in for at least a two-minute wait, I began recalling some history.

The first changing traffic signal arrived years before cars came along. In London in 1868, red semaphore arms and a red gaslight told carriage drivers to stop. Green meant caution - go ahead carefully. In 1912 Salt Lake City installed traffic lights for its streets - designed to be wide enough for a long mule train to turn around - but each signal required an operator. Two years later Cleveland installed the first electric lights.

By 1921 Detroit had the first automated, hour-way, three-light signals, installed towers in the middle the street. But the Detroit police should be more famous for another feat. In 1915 some genius invented the stop sign.

Whoa - the cars in front of me were pulling out. But as they chugged along up the snow-covered little hill, hope of making the next light dimmed. But maybe ... maybe ... rats!

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