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The zebra in our crossings

The stripes were officially first used in Slough, just west of London. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan  

If we turn back our watches by 65 years, we will come to a time when the roads weren’t as congested as they are today. But still, the time was ripe to start thinking about those who walk the roads. For pedestrian accidents were already on the rise by then…

Despite the fact that post-war Britain had only a fraction of its current road traffic, fatalities were mounting. Back then, the typical pedestrian crossing was marked using metal studs. While these were easy to see for those walking, it wasn’t the same case for those driving. By the time the motorists felt these bumps on their tyres, it was too late to slow down or stop.

Visibility experiments

To tackle this, the British government’s Transport Research Laboratory started working on a solution. They began with model roads, using which they ran visibility experiments on various types of crossings.

The designs that made the cut saw daylight as thousands of locations were employed to test a variety of designs from 1949. The one pattern that literally stood out was the broad black and white stripes that we now predominantly see in our roads.

Dual advantage

These stripes had a dual advantage in that they were not only visible from afar, making it easier for drivers to slow down if necessary, but pedestrians walking across this stretch were also more clearly visible against the background.

These stripes were officially first used in Slough, just west of London, on October 31, 1951. By the end of the year, the British government had adopted it widely for pedestrian crossings. In the first year alone, pedestrian deaths dropped by over 10 per cent.

Though the origin of the name is murky, it is generally credited to Jim Callaghan, who later went on to become Prime Minister. As a Member of Parliament, Callaghan is believed to have visited the lab during one of its tests in 1948. He is said to have made the casual observation that this design resembles the markings on the coat of a zebra. Though Callaghan himself later stated that he didn’t remember such an incident, the name stuck on.

Zebra crossings have remained the norm almost throughout the world with regional variations. While innovations are being tried out time and again to enhance the safety of pedestrians on the road, the black and white stripes have had major visual impact as a safety feature.


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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 7:03:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/The-zebra-in-our-crossings/article16084479.ece

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