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Oregon Trails: Street Signals

February 17, 2012

By Ron Brown

MEDFORD, Ore. — In many one-horse towns, it used to be that the number of horses hitched on Main Street measured the size and importance of that town, but today some may say it’s measured by the number of traffic signals.

For most of us, the familiar red, yellow and green traffic signals we see almost every day, almost everywhere, are so common we don’t think much about them. Unless they’re not working and then we see what chaos and commotion happens!

In the 1920’s, when traffic was really starting to get heavy, even in Medford, as seen in this old Copco Newsreel footage, it became apparent that better signs and signals were needed to stop the escalating number of collisions at intersections. That’s where a former Ashland woman, Vetabelle Phillips Carter, comes in. Appalled at the number of intersection accidents in her new hometown of San Francisco, she started work on an improved way to warn drivers when to go, and when to stop. Her daughter, Paulena Verzeano explains:

“And so, she started getting ideas for signals! And she got this idea and she carved them in her potatoes! And she made these little forms, and she was very artistic, so she did that! And she came up with the prototype and things that eventually became very, very well known or were used a great deal.”

Once she had an idea carved in a potato, her husband, Fred Carter, would build a full size model. This is one for a three-color signal light, but with different shaped lenses for each color.

“She had the 3 shapes, so that somebody who was color blind could still see by which one the light was on, and by the shape which was the intention of the instructions,” explains Paulena, “So, on that particular sign they’re reversed from what we know today, but apparently that was what was marketed at this time. And they had colored lights behind them.”

The lenses were also colored. She patented the lights and licensed their manufacture. Her hometown of Ashland is even reported to have used them, as did many other cities across the country. But it wasn’t only colored signal lights that this “mother of invention” devised. She also had her own version of the popular hexagonal stop sign.

Then there was this sign to warn of cable car intersections in San Francisco. It’s said that accident rates went down by 35% where her signal lights were installed. It’s probably a little bit hard today to realize what our world would be like without traffic signals and stop signs. Probably a lot of chaos at intersections. Thanks to an Ashland woman, with an eye for creativity, we now have those devices to help save lives.

Vetabelle Phillips Carter was born in Seattle in 1899 and became a school teacher until her marriage in the 1920’s to Fred Carter. Her husband was traffic engineer for the state of California from 1932 until his death in 1954.