You see a red, octagonal sign, and you know to stop even before you can read the big bold letters on the front. Yes, that’s partially due to the shape, but for most, the color red is a near-universal method for communicating the need to stop. But why red?
While red stop signs are common now, they used to be yellow, and the reason things changed is all about paint.
These days, we’re accustomed to a classic red, octagonal stop sign, but in the early 20th century, there was no universal color or shape for the marker. With drivers understandably confused, the American Association of State Highway Officials chose an octagonal shape in a yellow hue with bold black letters.
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Yellow is an eye-catching color, and the black lettering would obviously stand out, but at the time, electric traffic lights were already using red as the shade for stop and yellow as the slow-down symbol. Unfortunately, there was no red dye that wouldn’t fade over time.
However, in 1954, fade-resistant porcelain enamel was created, and it prevented fading. Once red was an option again, the Joint Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices convened and turned those stop signs red to match traffic lights and prevent confusion.
So while red might be a universal color for stops in the United States, road signage and traffic symbols aren’t the only places it’s used to represent stops. Red paint on trees also has a fascinating meaning.