Sign Paddles and the American Crossing Guard: A History

Most suburban Americans see Stop/Slow paddles every morning, usually in the hand of a police officer or crossing guard. This trend dates back to the early 1920s, when crossing guards first employed these paddle signs on busy American streets.
Old stop paddle
Old slow paddle
This old stop/slow paddle was used before the requirement of retroreflectivity in pedestrian signage and now defy OSHA regulations.
There are a number of regulations regarding the current usage of Stop/Slow paddles. The MUTCD specifies that the paddles should be at least 18” wide and have 6” tall letters (and this was an update of the original 1971 ANSI standard that recommended 24” wide paddles). Please also check, though, with the various state and local requirements for proper paddle size and reflectivity. The MUTCD standard mentions that to “stop road users, the flagger shall face road users and aim the STOP paddle face toward road users in a stationary position with the arm extended horizontally away from the body. The free arm shall be held with the palm of the hand above shoulder level [emphasis added] toward approaching traffic.”

Then, the standard goes on to state, “[to} direct stopped road users to proceed, the flagger shall face road users with the SLOW paddle face aimed toward road users in a stationary position with the arm extended horizontally away from the body." The flagger shall motion with the free hand for road users to proceed. To alert or slow traffic, the flagger shall face road users with the SLOW paddle face aimed toward road users in a stationary position with the arm extended horizontally away from the body.”

The handheld signs should be octagonal with a red background with white letters and a white border. The Slow sign, on the backside of the Stop sign, is the same shape but with an orange background with black text and a black border.
Modern stop paddle
Modern slow paddle
MUTCD and OSHA specify an octagonal shape. Letters should be at least 6” tall. Reflectorized paddles should be used at night.
The first safety patrol in the United States was implemented in Omaha, Nebraska in 1923 after an increase in automobiles led to anxiety from parents of students who walked to school. The Omaha Police Department responded by creating a system: a safety patrol officer, now known as a crossing guard, would be placed at the city’s busiest and most pedestrian-heavy intersections. Since then, safety patrols have sprouted up in virtually every American town and city, with crossing guards using paddle signs to temporarily stop traffic and let children cross busy thoroughfares.
Stop-Go pedestrian crossing
A popular pedestrian crossing at the dawn of the American crossing guard.
While crossing guards are not defined by their legal power, they do enforce road safety for young children. With safety patrol systems in place in virtually every American city by 1955, pedestrian and vehicle safety increased dramatically. Even early on, campaigns for increased road safety sprang up in major US cities. The Brooklyn Safety council the likeness of Jackie Coogan, a young female resident, to attract children to the poster below, which was distributed in 100,000 lots in Brooklyn. Before the Jackie Coogan poster was issued by the council, there was a traffic death approximately every 1.2 days. Afterwards, not one traffic fatality was reported for 11 days straight.
Wait a Minute, Save a Life 1923 Poster
This 1923 ad was mass-produced throughout Brooklyn, with very effective results.
In Illinois, the Chicago Crossing Guard Association was formed in 1955. The women on the safety patrol had a very particular uniform: white skirts with black pants underneath, tucked into black boots. Afterwards, the uniforms were changed to navy blue skirts with blue shirts, making the guards resemble local police. It wasn’t until 1973 that pants were permitted without a skirt. Today, Chicago crossing guards wear navy blue pants and a white shirt, often covered by a reflective vest. Despite the changes in apparel (as they accompany changes in gender perception), paddle signs have remained a customary feature for crossing guards since their creation.
Lori the traffic dog
Lori the traffic safety dog demonstrating traffic safety for younger students in 1974.
One of the most famous crossing guards was neither a woman nor a man. Lori, “a dog that came from nowhere,” gained fame as a traffic-stopping safety patrol dog. She carried a safety paddle sign in her mouth, and stood on her hind legs to stop traffic. Lori taught children throughout the United States that if a dog can be aware of traffic rules and safety on the road, so can they. Lori travelled the nation with a variety of tricks, going from school to school to teach children about the importance of road safety. When she died on June 29, 1977, she was buried with special honors.
Despite their prevalence in the United States, crossing guards are not subject to a universal regulatory system. There is no agreed-upon uniform or allocated system of payment; even the jurisdiction of employment varies from city to city, state to state. Some crossing guards are volunteers, while others are state employees. Still others are employed directly by the schools themselves. Crossing guards may be able to stop traffic with their famous paddle signage, but their authority stops there: crossing guards are not permitted to write tickets or make arrests, and have no more legal power than an ordinary civilian. They can report poor driving or inappropriate traffic behavior to the police by recording a license plate number, but this often results in nothing more than a verbal warning from the police.
While paddle signs have stayed the same, the history of the people (and even animals) that have held them throughout the years is rich and colorful. There may never be another Lori, but her message of traffic safety is still as resonant today as it was back then.

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