Slow Signs
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From Oklahoma to the World: the Origins of the Yield Sign

Not quite a yellow light, not quite a stop sign, the yield sign is one of our more ambiguous traffic signals. With its opaque, monosyllabic command (“YIELD!”), the sign leaves itself open to the interpretation of drivers – some of whom reflexively brake, many of whom ignore it completely. If the yield sign were punctuation, it would be a semicolon.

Yet like the oft-misused semicolon, the yield sign does have a clearly defined meaning – and a central role in traffic management. According to best swiss replica watches the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), the yield sign “assigns right-of-way to traffic on certain approaches to an intersection.” The explanation continues, asserting that, “Vehicles controlled by a YIELD sign need to slow down to a speed that is reasonable for the existing conditions or stop when necessary to avoid interfering with conflicting traffic.”

Because the use of the word “reasonable” in the MUTCD’s description leaves room for interpretation, various U.S. states offer more finely honed definitions of “yield.” California’s clear proscription is that “the driver of any vehicle approaching any intersection which is controlled by a yield right-of-way sign shall, upon arriving at the sign, yield the right-of-way to any vehicles which have entered the intersection....A driver having yielded as prescribed in subdivision may [then] proceed to enter the intersection, and the drivers of all other approaching vehicles shall yield the right-of-way....”

This nuanced traffic sign has interesting roots. According to Oklahoma-based This Land Press, the first yield sign in the U.S. debuted in 1950 at First Street and Columbia Avenue in Tulsa – at that time, the city’s most dangerous intersection. Originally keystone-shaped and bearing the words “SLOW. Yield Right of Way,” the yellow sign was the brainchild of Tulsa police officer Clinton Riggs. Within a year Tulsa’s First-and-Columbia intersection had dropped to seventh most dangerous, raising visibility for this innovative sign. Its intention, however, was not just to improve safety: Officer Riggs, who earned his J.D. while serving on the Tulsa Police Department, was interested in attaching liability in collisions if a driver failed to yield.

In a 1956 St. Petersburg Times article, author Edward D. Fales, Jr., who later wrote a book about “expert driving,” detailed the yield sign’s expansion in the six years since its debut in Oklahoma: “From Tulsa it spread to Ft. Wayne, Ft. Worth, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Providence and many other cities. Recently all sizeable California cities began using ‘YIELDS.’ Even New York City has a few.” His oft-cited article also detailed what people should do (slow down to 10 mph) when they encounter a Yield sign.

Since Officer Riggs’s invention, the yield sign has evolved in shape, color, and wording. Now an inverted white triangle with a red border, it simply reads, “YIELD.” This version of the sign, which has origins in 1930s Eastern Europe, has been adopted around the country and the world, with near-identical versions appearing at intersections from Argentina to Mongolia. Officer Riggs’s original yellow sign is on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Yield Signs
The original yield sign pictured with its creator, Officer Riggs.
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