If you work in roading construction or traffic control, you probably work with traffic cones all the time. Whether you call them traffic cones, road cones, highway cones, safety cones, construction cones, pylons or witches' hats; cones are one of the most practical and cost-effective traffic control devices available—they can effectively close off a road and redirect traffic with minimal effort, and be stacked up and transported with ease.
Modern traffic cones have a seemingly simple design but they are the result of decades of trial and error—of engineering, materials and testing. Each feature of the traffic cone is designed with a specific purpose in mind.
For example, have you ever wondered why traffic cones have holes on top?
The original purpose of these holes was so that you could install a flag on top of them—though today this is rarely done. But of course, the hole also makes a handy grip when placing them or pulling them off a stack and helps prevent them sticking too tightly together with suction.
Where did traffic cones come from?
Traffic cones are an American invention. They were first developed in 1943 by Charles Scanlon, a painter for the Los Angeles Streets Department, to keep cars away from wet paint. At the time, barriers to protect fresh road markings were made of wood, or even concrete! Scanlon’s idea was to make a flexible device that would spring back if run over and not cause damage to vehicles. His first version was made by joining strips cut from old tyres.
In 1943 he patented a ‘Safety Marker’ which became the first conical road marker that had the recognisable features of today’s traffic cones; made from resilient material, with a heavy base so it could remain upright and rebound from impact, and a top hole and base feet for easy stacking.
By the 1950s road cones were increasingly used to direct traffic and protect workers on US and UK roads. Today, traffic cones can be seen virtually everywhere—construction sites, streets, parking areas, even corridors and hallways. And government agencies, including here in New Zealand, publish precise specifications for their manufacture and use.
Road cones are now so well known they have become part of popular culture.
The NZTA’s Milford Alliance team were puzzled to find their road cones where not always where they left them—until they checked their cameras at the South Island’s Homer Tunnel, on the popular tourist route to Milford Sound.
After reviewing footage from the cameras, the road workers discovered kea were shifting the cones onto the road. “We think the keas listen for the cars in the tunnel and move the road cones between the streams of traffic,” said Milford Alliance Manager Kevin Thompson.
Kea Conservation Trust chair Tamsin Orr-Walker said a theory that kea may be shifting the road cones to try and get food could be true, or maybe they were doing it just for entertainment.
Kea, the world's only alpine parrot, have a reputation for their intelligence and for their destructive behaviour, including pulling soft rubber parts off cars.
Now at Homer Tunnel, as well as Manapouri power station, Nelson, and in Arthur's Pass, ‘Kea Gyms’ have been set up. Equipped with ladders, spinning flotation devices, swings and climbing frames, they are intended to keep the birds out of mischief away from traffic, forestry equipment, and road cones.
Road cones have frequently been used for all sorts of pranks, nowhere more than in Glasgow. Starting in the 1980s, residents of Glasgow would regularly place a cone atop the city’s statue of the Duke of Wellington. Over the years the hat became part of the local culture.
But in 2013 the city found it was spending £10,000 annually removing the cones and the joke was declared to be over. The Glasgow authorities decided to raise the base of the statue by about six feet and replace the sword, making it hard for pranksters to scale up to the Duke’s head.
But when news of the plans hit the press, townsfolk petitioned the city council to reverse the decision and the council soon dropped the idea. So if you are in Glasgow today there’s still a good chance the Duke will have a cone on his head.
Cones became synonymous with Christchurch's post-earthquake rebuild, with an estimated 150,000 traffic cones in use at the peak of reconstruction work. The council even employed a ‘cone ranger’ to round up errant cones.
Designer Pierre Lescop used the road cone as inspiration for his ‘On the Road’ ceramic breakfast set. ‘On the Road’ has white and orange sections that form an espresso cup, juice glass, tea cup, bowl and plate; everything you need to prepare and serve a breakfast. When washed and dried the sections reassemble into—a road cone.
In Disney's Cars, Sally Carrera runs the Cozy Cone Motel, where the units are oversized traffic cones. Disney likely borrowed the idea from a real motel in Arizona where all the rooms are shaped like wigwams. And the Cozy Cones are recreated at Disney's California 'Cars Land' version of Radiator Springs, where five cone stalls serve up popcorn, ice cream and other 'i-cone-ic' treats.
Artist Yianni Nomiko used paint, road cones and his creative imagination to create a series of traffic cone artworks featuring scenes of city life, but based on the pottery designs of Classical Greece.
Traffic cones are still one of the most recognised and practical traffic control tools available.
You’ll find them very helpful in keeping hazards at bay. Use them to control traffic flow, warn of hazards and dangerous situations, mark off restricted areas and support warming lights or signage.
Whatever your needs, check out AdSafe's road cone range!