It always surprises me how many times you round a bend in the road and find an oncoming vehicle with its offside wheels a foot or two over the double yellow line. It’s not just me that is jerked awake; you can tell the oncoming driver is, too, by the way their trajectory around the bend is suddenly amended by your presence. One wonders why that happens? Is it because they are on their phone with only half a mind on their driving, or shaving a second or two off some world record for getting from point A to B, or congenitally unable to obey the letter of the law? Unfortunately for the driver, the lines blazoned on the road make the error clear. But why are the lines there in the first place? To make driving safer for everyone, of course. If you stay between your own lane lines, the theory is that you shouldn’t hit anything or be hit. Tell that to Evergreen’s deer and elk, of course, but the idea is sound, so whose good idea was it?

Most sources have it that it was Dr. June McCarroll who came up with the idea of lane lines on roads back in 1917, after being run off the road in her Ford Model T by a sizable truck. She suggested it to the local Chamber of Commerce, but of course it was a time when women were not permitted to have ideas, especially good ones, and she was ignored. Her idea falling on deaf ears, she went out, presumably risking life and limb, and painted the darn thing herself. The California Department of Transportation adopted her idea in 1924, after some serious campaigning by McCarroll and women’s organizations that she mobilized. In 2002, the state of California designated the infamous stretch of road as “The Doctor June McCarroll Memorial Freeway.” Presumably, it has lane lines.

June McCarroll

McCarroll was, however, not the first person to have the idea of separating streams of traffic. In 1300, Pope Boniface had a line painted down the middle of a road to separate foot traffic from horse and carts. In 1600, a road was built in Mexico City with a lighter line of stones down the middle, perhaps on the principal that if you make lane lines, cars will come. There are also other competing claims to be the innovator of road markings in the U.S. It is said that in 1911, Edward Hines of the Wayne County, Michigan road commission got the idea from following a milk truck that was leaking milk onto the road as it travelled. In 1917, two other claimants to the idea were Kenneth Sawyer, who painted a white line on a dangerous curve in Marquette County, Michigan, and Deputy Sheriff Peter Rexford, who did something similar with yellow paint on the Columbia River Highway in Oregon. In 1918 Britain, someone painted a line on a dangerous road in Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham, as an experiment, and it was so effective in reducing accidents that the whole of Britain followed suit in 1926. It was very necessary, as Americans will appreciate, because everyone was driving on the wrong side of the road. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein’s quote: when line-painting time comes, you can paint lines—but not before!

Of course it was the upsurge in the number of vehicles on roads, their increasing speeds, and the consequent accidents that gave the innovation impetus, and that was all Henry Ford’s fault. In 1913, he installed a production line for his Model T vehicles that produced a vehicle in 90 minutes instead of 12 hours! They were all black since, at the time, black was the fastest drying paint and he didn’t want to slow the production line to accommodate color. In 1910 there were 5 cars for every 1,000 people in America (it was hell trying to rent one), but by 1920 there were 86. In 1908, a Model T cost $825, and in 1912 it was $525, but by 1927, it had fallen to $290. The cost reduction meant more people could afford them.

In 1930s’ America, lines had begun to be used for more than centerlines, as travel and vehicles became more common and speeds increased. Stop signs, white and colored lines, and painted arrows became more common, and the language of the lines became increasingly a traffic control measure, rather than merely a guide. The need for national standardization had already been recognized, but competing though similar standards existed for urban and rural areas prepared by two different authorities. In 1932 the two organizations sensibly amalgamated, and in 1935 they produced the Manual on Uniform Traffic Devices, which has been revised periodically as the need for additional controls on both striping and signage have become necessary in the face of rising traffic volumes and other needs.

The cost of road markings became a significant part of local authority budgets, and with it the search for and development of paints that would not wear off rapidly in high traffic locations. Initially, lines were painted in whatever the market had available at the time. Glass beads were added to improve visibility and wear resistance, but they did not increase durability as much as hoped. More recently, the advent of two-part paints, such as epoxy compounds, have evolved, which are more expensive but more economical, given their higher resistance to wear.

Other solutions to the durability problem have also developed. The use of thermoplastic compounds that can be applied as a liquid when heated and quickly form a solid material as it cools is now becoming common for the highest wear areas. The extra thickness to which these compounds can be applied also has a positive impact on durability. The material can be preformed into the shapes of letters, arrows and icons that are easy to apply by heating in place with simple equipment. Typically, such markings last 3-5 years, depending upon the thickness of application and the amount of wear they are subject to.

Ever more sophisticated, specialist vehicles have been developed to apply today’s line paints.

Along with the development of improved coatings has come a parallel development in mechanized methods of applying the various materials faster to cut total applied costs. This has resulted in the increasingly specialized vehicles for the application of the materials that we see on our roads today.

Nowadays, as both advisory and mandated statutes have developed, road markings have increasingly become a language to assist or compel drivers to observe practices that result in safer driving and fewer accidents. At the same time, it has become a significant recurring cost in road management. Unfortunately, every day we see practices and transgressions that ignore or dilute the benefits they bring.

© David Cuin 2023