Explore the timeline of how the painted lines on roads—known as road striping—came to be.

When learning to drive one of the very first things you learn about is what the lines and images painted on a road—called road striping—means. Road striping conveys meaning to drivers and pedestrians alike, indicating which direction to drive, where to cross the street, where it is safe to pass, where not to drive, and more. Without road striping, our roads would be much more dangerous. While we all agree on the meanings of all the different iterations of road striping, most don’t know how they came into being. See a brief history of road striping.

The Beginning of Road Striping

Newark, New Jersey, saw the first ever application of asphalt paving in the US in 1870, but it wasn’t until the rise of the automobile in the early 1900s that paved roads became the norm. Then, in 1911, the first use of road striping in the form of a white centerline was documented in Wayne County, Michigan. The story goes that the chairman of Wayne County’s Board of Roads, Edward N. Hines, got the idea after seeing a milk wagon leaking a white line on a road.

The year 1917 saw road striping in the form of a single centerline become mandatory on rural state highways in Michigan, Oregon, and California. It was also the start of the debate as to whether centerlines should be white or yellow. In Michigan, they chose a white centerline for a “Dead Man’s Curve” in an extreme curve in the road. In Oregon, they chose a yellow centerline after observing that white was harder to see than yellow at night during storms. In California, Dr. June McCaroll took it upon herself to paint a white centerline on a road where she had been run off the road by a truck after both the Chamber of Commerce and the County Board of Supervisors ignored the concerns she raised from the incident.

In 1935, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) was approved as an American Standard; this was after a decade or so of various organizations publishing different reports and guidebooks on the topic. The MUTCD standardized everything to do with road signs, markings, signals, and islands. However, it did not standardize the color for centerlines; it allowed for white, yellow, or black, depending on which color would offer the greatest contrast with the road it was painted on.

Modern Road Striping

The debate on centerline color was almost decided in 1954 when 47 states agreed that the centerline should be white. However, that was reversed in 1971 when another edition of the MUTCD was released, advising that the centerline color should be yellow. It took four years for every centerline in the country to be painted yellow. Since then, yellow has been used as a centerline between opposing traffic and white has been used as the color of the centerline between traffic going the same direction.