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Red Light, Green Light

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Cars first used lanterns to light the road in front, but no lights on the rear. As cars became more common, increased traffic led to more accidents. An obvious solution was to install taillights. The only question was what color should indicate the back of a car.

At the time, the railroads were the only model for mass transportation, and used lights to communicate with trains moving at high speeds. Lights also communicated with railroad workers and switching stations. Green meant traffic was free to proceed ahead. Yellow meant use caution and slow down. Red meant danger and stop. Trains used white lights on the front to illuminate the track ahead. Red lights at the rear alerted trains approaching from behind. The system worked so well that car manufacturers adopted the same color scheme.

Not everyone thought red taillights were a good idea. On this date in 1922, the Hope Pioneer suggested that red was not ideal for rear lights. The newspaper referred to an article in the magazine Railway Age. The article suggested that red should be reserved for the most dangerous situations. These would include railroad crossings, street intersections, and obstacles in the road such as construction. The theory was that when a driver followed red taillights for miles, the color would lose its effectiveness as a signal for danger.

As evidence, the article cited the example of an accident that occurred at a railroad crossing. A chauffeur said he had been following the red lights of a car ahead of him. When he approached a railroad crossing, he took it for granted that the red lights of the crossing gate were the taillights of a car ahead. As the supposed car did not seem to be moving very fast, he pulled out to pass. He ran through the gates and his car was hit by a train. The article concluded that yellow lights should be used for the rear of cars.

Needless to say, that suggestion never caught on.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Hope Pioneer. “Danger of Red Tail Lights.” Hope ND. 4/22/1922. Page 4.

LED Outfitters. “Why Are Taillights Red?” https://www.ledoutfitters.com/blog/why-are-taillights-red Accessed 3/20/2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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