The First Three-Position Traffic Light Changed Car Safety Forever

We can’t remember a time before cars. In the past hundred years, cars have gone from being a mode of private transportation for the rich to a staple among families everywhere. Traffic laws might change everywhere you go, from which side of the road you drive on to who has the right of way. There is, however, one symbol that we recognize universally when it comes to car safety, and that is the three-position traffic light. In fact, the traffic light is so well understood that it is applied off the road, too. 

Three-position traffic lights

The three-position traffic light, as we know it, can be found at many intersections and roadways. It is a way to ensure drivers yield to other cars at the appropriate times, and the purpose is to minimize accidents. The three lights, green, yellow, and red, represent movements with the cars and indicate to drivers what they are responsible for doing at the intersection. These colors are standard almost across the world to prevent any possible confusion that could lead to an accident. 

Traffic Light
Traffic Light | Scott Olson/Getty Images

The introduction of traffic lights

Before the three-position traffic light, we had more simple two-position traffic lights and other forms of signs like stop signs and yield signs that we still see today. It wasn’t until November of 1923 that the three-position traffic light was patented. The goal was to introduce the intermediary yellow light, which let motorists know that the light was preparing to change, rather than the abrupt change from “GO” to “STOP.” The yellow light signaled that it was time for drivers to begin slowing down so that they could safely come to a stop. 

The typical traffic lights with the red heart that the city of Akureyri, Iceland | Joaquin Gomez Sastre/NurPhoto, Getty Images

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From tragedy to innovation

The patent was owned by Garrett Morgan, a newspaperman, and inventor who was 46 years old at the time the patent was granted. According to 365 Days of Motoring, Morgan got the idea for the three-signal traffic light after watching an accident at an intersection. While Morgan did hold the patent for several years, he eventually sold it to GE for $40,000, and it has evolved and changed over the years into the traffic signal that we know today. 

Milan. Piazza del Duomo. traffic lights with manual control |Touring Club Italiano/Marka/Universal Images Group, Getty Images

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Since its first installation, the three-signal traffic life has saved an innumerable amount of lives, and although they aren’t able to stop motorists from disobeying them, they make us feel safer and more confident in our daily driving than we realize, even if we seem to get stuck at every red light when we are running late.