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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

A brief history of the adoption of the rules of the road

(And what we can learn from this for regulating new technologies today)

One of the things that fascinates me the most about working in the tech industry is watching the progress of how innovation pushes out old systems and introduces new ones. While many times this can feel painfully slow to watch in real time (have you ever tried to access your own health records in more places than once?), I have to remind myself that any change process takes time.

Even when an innovation far outpaces any pre-existing norm (as is the case with blockchain technology) it seems that the world can’t move fast enough in deciding when and how to regulate this new system.

It’s a tricky balance. If any new innovation is over-regulated from the start, you run the risk of stymying innovation and driving out entrepreneurs who may otherwise be building the next big thing. If under-regulated, at least in the case of crypto, millions of people could get scammed and remove any potential for credibility in this space.

While I certainly don’t have answers to how this will play out in crypto, I spent some time last week teaching myself about the rollout of another complex, largely agreed-upon system — the driving rules of the road. I was curious to see if there was anything we could glean from how the transformative innovations of the auto industry impacted how we agreed upon basic signage, rules, and protocols that we still use today.

Here’s what I learned:

Here’s a peek at the first “motor wagon” in the U.S., invented by Charles and Frank Duryea back in 1893.

  1. When the first “motor wagon” appeared in the U.S. in 1893, there was no market to sell them. Two brothers, Charles and Frank Duryea, (and yes, contemporaries of the Wright Brothers) invented the first motorized vehicle in the U.S. in 1893. However, only 13 copies were made to sell, and the company ultimately failed. I have to wonder if this wasn’t due in part to the road infrastructure not being strong enough to support it, not to mention a marketing problem. You see…

  2. While the earliest roads date back to 4,000 BC in Mesopotamia, we didn’t start to modernize and “pave” them until the 1800s. Again, this makes a lot of sense. Without advancements in automotive technology, there was no need for any added infrastructure costs to support robust and modern paved roads. In the late 1700s, two engineers from Scotland iterated on a technique for paving that layered different types of stone while incorporating considerations in things like street traffic patterns and the gradient of the road. Iterated throughout the early 1800s, the Champs-Elysees in Paris can boast its claim as the first modern road, when it was paved in 1824.

  3. Public outcry forced a government intervention to pave more roads in the U.S. in the early 1900s. What suddenly spurred the public’s interest and attention to better street infrastructure? The invention of the Model T Ford in 1908. Unlike the Duryea brothers, Ford did a much better job at marketing and selling their car on the mass market, which meant an increased number of motorized vehicles on dirt or mud roads. The slogan, “Get the farmers out of the mud!” caught on from rural farmers hoping to sway public officials toward paved roads. Ultimately, this worked in the U.S., with the introduction of the Federal Highway system in 1916.

  4. Optimizing roads for speed and scale is what led us to the U.S. Interstate System in 1956. And it took 17 years to create and fund this idea. In fact, one of the major catalysts that ultimately allowed President Eisenhower to push this initiative through to fruition was out of concerns for citizen safety. With cold war fears of nuclear attacks rife in the mid 1950s, the U.S. interstate system would be one way to allow citizens to escape major metropolitan areas quickly.

That’s right. The original stop signs of the world…were yellow.

  1. Paving roads was just one part of the infrastructure costs — street signage has had its whole separate innovation curve. Starting from the very first known electric traffic signal in 1914, the adoption process of street signs has been slow and iterative as well. Prior to the invention of durable, fade-resistant paints in the 1950s, stop signs were notably painted yellow (not red) in the U.S. for nearly 40 years in order to allow drivers to see the signs better at night.

  2. While it may seem like 100% consensus, even today, there is not unilateral agreement on street sign protocols. In fact, the U.S. is notably absent from the list of 74 countries who participated in the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic agreement in 1968. Instead, we opted into our own standardizations for road signs, called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), but even those rules can be squishy and vary state by state.

Even as of 2009, there are differences state by state as to how street signs are regulated.


And so, to recap:

  1. We’ve had roads and public infrastructure since 4,000 BC but little need to advance the technology underlying these streets until the late 1800s.

  2. Even after the agreed-upon technology for modern road-paving was standardized in the 1850s, it would be another 100+ years before the U.S. government would step in and regulate the creation of a national Interstate System standard.

  3. There’s still a lot more moving parts in this complex system than you may realize, including how we think about street signs globally.

So is there anything to be learned from studying the evolution and ultimate adoption of the rules of the road? While this long process of adoption and regulation may seem insanely frustrating to watch in response to any new technology, I personally found some comfort is learning that, at the very least, this just seems to be par for the course. And any innovation and regulation we see taking place in tech today seems to be happening at a breakneck speed by comparison.


P.S. I originally conceived this topic as a slide deck, so if you’d like to read through that too, here is “A Brief History of the Rules of the Road.” in Google Slides form.

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