Sign Paddles and the American Crossing Guard: A History
There are a number of regulations regarding the current usage of Stop/Slow paddles. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that Stop/Slow paddles should have lights or flags (with flags being used only in emergencies). 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.