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By: Thomas Carson

(Unlikely) Origins of Safety: Part 4

Continuing through our collection of safety tips published and distributed by the Imperial Tobacco Company in England around 1910.  In part 4, am highlighting the importance of communication during hazardous operations, and few activities were more hazardous for civilians in 1910 then driving a motor car in traffic.  All safety professionals can relate to the role of visual signals that convey either intent to act or a request for another person to act – think of crane and rigging operations when a spotter is necessary to guide actions.  The need for visual communication goes back a long time.  The first documented example was the use of smoke signals along the Great Wall in China when construction started in the 7th century BC.  Various forms of mechanical semaphores and flag systems have been (and still are) widely used on ships.  As a result, there was plenty of precedent for using hand signals in cars when they came into use in the early 1900’s.

There were early, and creative, versions of automated turn signals.  I liked that a silent film star named Florence Lawrence invented a mechanical solution in 1914 that displayed a pop-up sign on the rear bumper with the driver’s planned direction.  In 1929, Oscar Simler patented his combo turn, slowing down and stopping signal, shown here:

It would be another 40 years before Buick included electric turn signals as standard safety equipment in 1938.  Other manufacturers began adding them as options or standard equipment, but it wasn’t until the late 1960’s when they became mandatory by government regulation.  Unfortunately, even today many motorists apparently wonder about the purpose of that little stick on the side of the steering column…

Here is the standard guidance for use of hand signals for motorists, still legal in most countries today:

Fill this out for answers to all your EHS software questions.

As the popularity of cars grew, it was only a matter of time before congestion led to the invention of the traffic jam on November 11, 1921 in Washington D.C., where 3,000 cars were stuck in place for nearly three hours.  So along the way, we got traffic cops, who developed their own visual orders:

Of the cautions provided by the safety tips, we again see an awareness of a problem that was formalized in more modern times when they recognized that you should rely only on “competent persons” for your traffic orders – check out the lower right card warning one to “Beware of Amateur Traffic Controllers”.

I hope that you enjoyed this continuing look into our safety roots.  For the full background on these cards, see the blog here.