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History of the Centerline on Texas Roads

History of the Centerline on Texas Roads

By Melinda Luna PE, Chair, History & Heritage Committee

A 2009 photo of the La Bahia Road, one of the earliest pathways in Texas. Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/6Py3HC

The earliest roads in Texas included the Old San Antonio Road, La Bahia Road and a series of trails.  None of these roads had lane designations.  The guidance on centerlines as we know it was not defined until 1978, so the standard practice didn’t exist until relatively recently.  But the idea of separating lanes can be traced back much further in history.

In 600 A.D., lighter stone colors were used in Mexico to define a centerline in roads. There were also instances as far back as the 19th century of some bridges having a centerline painted on them, so it seems that the idea of a centerline was reoccurring. 

The California Department of Transportation credits June McCarroll as the person who came up with the idea of separating lanes with a white centerline.  She painted a white stripe on a highway near Indio, California after having an accident on the road.  She lobbied to make her stripe a statewide standard, and the state adopted this safety measure in 1924.  There were other instances where centerlines were documented before June McCarroll painted the line.  The first was when Edward N. Hines, chairman of the Wayne County Board of Roads, made it a standard to have the centerline painted in 1911.  Another instance was when Kenneth Ingalls Sawyer, an engineer, painted a centerline on County Road 492 in Marquette County Michigan.  In April of 1917, the Sheriff of Multnomah County decided that the white paint was not visible, so he painted a yellow solid stripe. 

Because automobiles were adopted so quickly, not much time, coordination or research was done to investigate the safety aspect of cars. As the cars got faster, fatalities increased on highways.  A search of newspapers in these early days was done, and no definitive first was found on when centerline striping was used in Texas. However, research on the evolution of roads shows that the creation of the Texas Highway Department in 1917 marked the start of standardization on at least state owned roads.  In the late 1920’s, the Texas Highway Department started to use centerlines. This can be seen, for example, in some 1920s photos of Highway 47 South, which show the roadway with a center stripe.

Dr. H. Gene Hawkins, Jr., Ph.D., PE of the Texas Transportation Institute wrote a detailed paper on the Evolution of the US Pavement Marking System in October 2000 that can be found here. It documents the first standardization of a centerline in the 1935 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The lines could be white, yellow or black (for concrete pavement).  Centerlines were only required on hills, short radius curves, or wide pavement greater than 40 feet.  There were updates to the MUTCD in 1942, 1948, 1961, 1971, 1978, and 1988.  A good number of engineers and scientists helped to refine the center line as far as reflectivity of the paint and how it defines the centerline to give information to the driver. 

Just imagine what driving would be like if we did not have lane lines in our daily commute.