Rules of the Road

Red light, red light

What do you say?

I say stop-stop

Right away.


This limerick about traffic rules that’s often taught to little children coupled with the `Safe Drive, Save Life’ campaign, that has been running successfully in our city Kolkata for the last two years, set me thinking about how the traffic rules came into being and its gradual evolution.

It seems that Industrial Revolution was what necessitated the framing of a system for managing the traffic of cities worldwide. Vehicles with engines started plying on roads and unlike horse-drawn carriages, or palkis (in countries like India), these vehicles could run over pedestrians and hit other vehicles, if there were no traffic rules. Railway locomotives also had a big role to play in the formulation of traffic rules. In 1861, British Parliament adopted what became known as the Locomotive on Highways Act. It merely stated that the vehicles' weight should be at most 12 tonnes and imposed a 10 mph (16km/h) speed limit. Some of the provisions of the legislation seem quite funny, but some have formed the basis for modern day traffic legislation.

As the number of vehicles on the roads increased, so did the need to keep track of them and their owners. It is said that France came up with the idea of license plates. But it was Netherlands which actually took the idea further and established an entire system - the first nationwide licensing system. In 1904 the Motor Car Act is adopted in UK. The provisions of the act included penalizing people guilty of `reckless driving’. Not displaying the license plate of the car, was declared an offence. For the first time, the need for a license to drive was felt. Obtaining a license was very easy though, one just had to fill up a form and pay five shillings.

The credit for installing traffic lights is given to the British. A two colour (red and green) sign, installed outside the British Parliament is considered the first traffic light of the modern world. This gas lit contraption had to be operated manually. A month into service, it exploded and was never recreated. The idea of traffic lights had its admirers and it was revived in the US by Lester Wire in 1912, who is considered the inventor of the electric red-green traffic light. Automated traffic lights first surfaced in 1922, in Houston. Five years later, the country which started it all, Britain, got its first lights in Wolverhampton.

The first road sign system in its modern sense is said to have been created by the Italian Touring Club in 1895. But it was only when nine European countries agreed to use the same signs to denote features like "bump", "curve", "intersection" etc, that the first framework came into being. India started using the system gingerly in the early 1950s. US, however, kept using its own sign system and adopted the international system much later, sometime in the 60s.

Since then, many changes have taken place. Technology has done wonders for the traffic management system. CCTVs have made the life of law enforcers much easier and the lawbreakers’ that much difficult. Rules of the road are much stricter now and that is how it should be. Life is precious and rules of the road help protect the sanctity of life.

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