Road Cones

Like most American adults, I drive around in a vehicle almost every day and spend 93 percent of that time wondering about road cones. I think to myself, what’s the story there? So, this week I decided it was time we got some answers to the burning questions that have been keeping all of us awake at night.

To truly understand traffic safety markers (first discovery: They’re called “traffic safety markers”), we must venture back to the earliest days of travel, long before the invention of cars, or roads, or safety. Cavepeople carried all their groceries and kids on their backs as they walked heedlessly about — strolling off cliffs, moseying into tar pits and crashing into each other at prehistoric intersections.

While archaeologists have yet to find definitive evidence, surely all can agree that cavepersons would’ve had some kind of proto-traffic-safety-marking system. Maybe a long, thin, yellow-painted tablet, fastened across two trees, with “caution” or whatever inscribed in it every couple feet. Or, maybe a stick. Is it not plausible that one rainy, prehistoric day, a caveguy jabbed a big stick in some mud so his neighbors wouldn’t drive their Flintstones car into it?

Flash forward 10,443 years, and Charles D. Scanlon, a street painter working at the Los Angeles Road Department, suddenly envisioned an upgrade to the classic mud-stick marker. His patent, awarded Nov. 2, 1943, describes a highly visible, stackable, cone-shaped “safety marker” with a heavy base to keep it upright.

While Scanlon’s prototypes were fashioned of stitched-together rubber from used tires, most of the cones we use now are made by injecting molten plastic into a cone-shaped mold … over and over and over again, because we use a ton of them. The California Department of Transportation, alone, buys more than 50,000 new cones per year.

Aside from countless cone copycats (or cone clones, if I may) that have emerged in the decades since Scanlon’s invention, the only serious competitor to the cone is the taller, cylindrical, traffic “delineator.” What’s a delineator? It’s a stackable cone that isn’t a cone and can’t be stacked.

With more than two hours of grueling internet research behind me, I had become an expert on everything safety-marker, and I have to admit, I immediately loathed the delineator. Did I mention they don’t stack?! Stacking had already been invented and whoever invented the delineator just said, “Pfffth … stacking’s overrated.”

It’s important, however, even for experts, to consult with other professionals. I visited Bay Area Barricade in Concord and asked the company president, Craig Songster, to confirm my conclusion that cones rule, and that the delineator is a detestable, inferior and downright offensive product.

“Well, no,” Songster said delicately, and went on to explain his typical customer’s perspective. “They want what’s inexpensive, meets standards and gets the job done. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

Suspecting that he was only saying these things for fear of eavesdropping delineator-industry operatives, I thanked him for his thoughts. I needed to engage some folks on the front line of this controversial issue.

I met with Chris Ehlers, Brentwood’s assistant director of public works/operations, and members of his street maintenance team. If anyone was going to give me the real skinny on traffic safety markers, these were the guys. I asked them to lay out for me, with brutal honesty, everything awful about the despicable tubular delineator that we all hate.

“We only use cones here,” said Daniel Johnston, a seasoned member of the street maintenance team, “but delineators are fine, too.” The rest of the crew agreed, adding that stackability isn’t everything.

I was foolish to think I’d be able to crack open this conspiracy in so little time, though I did learn a lot. Unfortunately, with my laser focus on the safety markers, I hadn’t stopped to think about their most important role: protecting hard workers like Johnston from distracted drivers like me. Also, to keep me from driving into the present-day mud pits: big, open trenches.

Now grab some tissue and watch this PSA plea from a bunch of roadworkers’ kids: “Be alert, our parents are at work.”

And for a list of important things to do when approaching a work zone, visit Caltrans’ “Be Work Zone Alert” site at