The line that divides a road could be considered one of the most important safety devices ever implemented. It makes sure that cars and trucks travel on the correct side of the road without straying too far to the middle or the other side. But when did the seemingly simple concept of a highway centerline first come about?
The first road marking was believed to be a strip of white stones that divided an ancient Spanish highway that ran between Mexico City and Cuernavaca, Mexico, around 1600 AD. It’s not known precisely what the strip of stones running down the middle of the road were exactly used for, but it is believed it was to divide traffic.
Lines on a road may have been used in more limited capacities for use over bridges in the late 1800s or for stop lines in the early 1900s. The first credit for the use of a line to divide a road in more modern times went to Edward N. Hines, a Wayne County, Michigan, road commissioner in 1911. The story goes that Hines saw a milk truck leaving a trail of leaking milk down the road and got the idea for the centerline of a roadway.
Unfortunately, like so many good anecdotes, this one was probably more legend than fact. It’s more likely that an earlier story held more truth in that Hines witnessed a near-collision between a horse-drawn carriage and an automobile, which gave him the idea to place a painted centerline on the roadway so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.
Either way, Hines ordered the painting of centerlines on all the dangerous areas of roadway in Wayne County. His actions influenced other areas of the country to follow as more regions began to add centerlines to their roadways.
Of course, simple but brilliant ideas usually have some controversy. The invention of the highway centerline was no exception. While Wayne County is in Southern Michigan, a similar claim to the invention of the centerline was widely recognized in Northern Michigan. The problem was the year the invention was claimed was in 1917, six years after Hines already had centerlines painted in Wayne County.
Marquette County claimed that their road commissioner, Kenneth Sawyer, invented the centerline for a dangerous area of road called “Dead Man’s Curve.” When it was known that Hines had already invented the centerline in 1911, people in support of Sawyer began to say that he was the first to create the centerline for a “rural” highway since Wayne County included Detroit, Michigan. There is even a historical marker in Marquette County that tells of the difference.
Hines’s claim to the invention of the highway centerline was bolstered, however, when B.F. Goodrich, the tire company, proclaimed him as the true inventor. The American Automobile Association also awarded him with a plaque as the inventor of the highway center safety line.
Either way, the centerline of a roadway has proven to be a piece of safety equipment that everyone can agree was an essential step in keeping drivers away from a dangerous situation.
Sources: Mining Journal, Popular Science, Opposite Lock, Texas Transportation Institute, NCHRP