Quick - what is the Most Important Single Traffic Safety Device? Many experts say it was invented by Edward Hines of Michigan, in 1911.
It seems hard to imagine that people drove on roads at one point which were not nicely marked for us. How would you know if the idiot in front of you was drunk unless there was a center line for him to ignore? Well, it wasn't possible to see that before 1911. That's the year Edward Hines, Wayne County Road Commissioner, came up with the idea to draw a line down the middle of the road as a safety feature.
As the later story went, he was inspired by seeing a leaky milk truck drive along, leaving a nice dotted line down the middle of the road. That fed Hines the idea of dividing the road into equal halves, so that cars could avoid hitting each other head on. And that line down the middle of the road has been called the most important single traffic safety device. And on a side note, this was not his only claim to fame. It was under his direction that the first mile of concrete roadway was built - a section of Woodward Avenue between Six and Seven Mile Roads.
The leaky milk truck story sounds apocryphal and probably is. In earlier versions of Hines's story, he said he witnessed a near head-on collision "on a bridge between a horse and buggy and an automobile," neither of which was a leaky milk wagon. The near-miss version was retold in The Milwaukee Journal, October 20, 1953. Hines saw the near-miss and thought a center line might have helped. He ordered his road commission to begin center striping all danger spots – curves and bridges were first – and the results were impressive. He then simply ordered the striping of all roads in Wayne County. When the rest of the state – and then the nation – saw the results of this, they began center lining their roads as well. For those unfamiliar, Wayne County is in southeast Michigan and encompasses Detroit.
There is a small dispute about the center line's inventor, although Hines does appear to be the man who deserves the credit. A historical marker in northern Michigan - hundreds of miles from Wayne County - titled "Highway Center Line Invented Here," tells the story of their local road commissioner, Kenneth Sawyer, and how he invented the center line when he painted a line on a nearby dangerous curve in 1917. For many years, Sawyer supporters argued that theirs was the first piece of road with a center line, even though no one argued it was painted before 1917.
When it became clear that 1911 preceded 1917 and not the other way around, Sawyerites began saying that Sawyer was the inventor of the first "rural" center line, as if that is somehow a meaningful distinction.
The drafters of the Sawyer marker language believed their portion to be the world's first without qualification. "Since that time, the center line painted stripe has been adopted worldwide to guide drivers to keep in their own lane." So, many people refer to the marker and pretend it makes the distinction - which it doesn't. For example, the Daily Mining Journal noted that the centerline "saw one of its first uses on a rural road in Marquette County." The italics are mine. The writer of that piece, in November, 2011, had to shoehorn rural into the piece because the article was about an honor being given to Hines, not Sawyer. A photo of the marker accompanies the article.
And, Sawyer's rural center line in 1917 was nowhere near a first, even if we split hairs on rural versus urban. Oregon, among others, had adopted center lines by 1917 as well. According to The Oregonian, February 26, 1958, center lines had been painted there as early as April, 1917, although their center lines had been yellow and not white. (The 1958 piece was actually about the color of the lines and not who was first, which lends the article even more credence in my opinion.) And there is one more obvious point: prior to 1917, major portions of Wayne County were rural. We do not know when the first rural roads within the county were center lined but it seems likely that one of them probably was striped before 1917 since Hines had begun striping the whole county in 1911.
Of course, Wikipedia states the Sawyer "rural center line first" notion, without qualification, explanation or citation. The State of Michigan even grants him the "first rural center line" but I suspect that is because they hate to call out the mistaken historical marker. Sawyer was a good guy and all but it is hard to take away something which has been said about him for all these years.
Just to cement Hines's claim: B.F. Goodrich decided to figure out who deserved the credit for the center line back in the 1930s. Goodrich concluded the honor belonged to Hines. The St. Petersburg Times called him the "Originator of Center Safety Stripe for Highways," and noted his recent recognition by the tire company. AAA even gave him a bronze plaque. And, his bronze plaque predated Sawyer's mistaken historical marker by a decade or two.
So, next time you are struggling to stay on your side of the center line, thank Edward Hines. Is the center line the the most important single traffic safety device of all time? A strong argument can be made for it. If not, what other contenders are there?
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.
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Photo of Hines: Courtesy State of Michigan; Center Line photo: Courtesy of Charles Rondeau