A police officer named F.M. Wilson made Los Angeles traffic history 99 years ago..
was hailed as one of the first "human semaphores" who ushered in a new
way of directing traffic in downtown Los Angeles at a time when
exploding car traffic along with trolleys, buses, pedestrians and the
occasional horse were making getting around the city an ordeal.
1915, Los Angeles officials often used a complex whistle system to tell
drivers and pedestrians when to move and when to stop. The system was
confusing and ineffective, officials at the time said.
In the new system, police officers stood in the middle of intersections directing traffic in a new way.
Times described it this way: "The traffic men are instructed to stand
with face and back directed towards the traffic that is stopped and when
the change is made for the traffic the other way, the policeman will
make a half turn with the body to the left, at the same time bringing
the right arm around with a becoming motion as a signal for traffic in
the other direction to proceed."
Police officials were bullish on the new process because it didn't require drivers and motorists to listen for commands.
were several serious objections to the whistle signals at the
crossings," a Lt. Butler said at the time. "and the new system had
entirely eliminated them.
"Now pedestrians and drivers of
vehicles cannot become confused once they understand the system," added
Butler, who headed LAPD's traffic division. "All they have to do is look
for the uniformed policeman. If his back or face is toward them they
know traffic is closed, but when they see either side of his face they
know it is safe to negotiate the crossing. Under the old system many
accidents were narrowly averted because of failure to hear the officer's
whistle and sometimes because of inability to discover in time which
way was being opened."
That's where F.M. Wilson came in. The
Times noted he was "in charge at Fifth Street and Broadway. During the
rush period between 3 and 6 p.m., he keeps on an average 15,000
pedestrians an hour moving, a fraction more than five street cars per
minute and about 1,500 automobiles, wagons and other vehicles each
"This is a big improvement over the whistle," Wilson said.
"I used to blow the old whistle so much it made my head ache and I know
the shrill tone was an annoyance to the public. Now traffic moves more
rapidly and with less confusion. I believe that by eliminating the
whistle we can be more benefit to the pedestrians, too. In the past we
were compelled to interrupt interrogators with a shrill whistle blast,
but now we can talk away even though it is necessary to change our
Of course, traffic cops became more artistic since the days of Wilson.
the 1970, it took more than polite hand gestures to move traffic in
L.A. In 1979, The Times introduced readers to Officer William Melvin,
who was not shy about giving difficult drivers a nasty glare.
isn't one to hide his emotions. He mans the rush hour post at 7th and
Figueroa Sts. When he wants you to GO, you know. When he wants you to
STOP, you know. And when something about the way you drive, or the looks
of your vehicle, or anything else leaves him just-plain-disgusted …
well … you know about that too."
In 2002, The Times introduced
readers to Rodney Smith, who "directs traffic as if he's conducting the
world's greatest symphony orchestra. A traffic officer with L.A.'s
Department of Transportation, Smith has been unclogging intersections
and drawing crowds with his kinetic moves for 14 years.
holidays, Smith, 36, can work at as many as eight intersections, looking
at times as if he's dancing a hula, petting a dog or auditioning for a
scene in a Jackie Chan film. Unfazed by power outages, bad weather or
presidential motorcades, Smith bends his body like rubber and creates a
fluid perpetual wave with his hands, often rebuking cell phone users by
hanging up a pantomimed telephone. We asked the maestro about his
Smith described the music he danced to: "Barry
Manilow won't work. Before I go out, I may listen to an old George
Benson CD or James Brown's "Payback." One day it was the Stray Cats."
directed traffic at intersections across the city — from Century City
to Los Angeles International Airport. He said his performances sometimes
drew crowds who would look on at the show. He said the worst
intersection to cover is Century and Aviation boulevards near LAX — when
"I had women flash me when I was younger. Or they
say, 'Those hands are sexy.' I've had phone numbers thrown at me. Or
they asked me, 'What else can you do with those sexy hands?'" he said.
Recently, Los Angeles has been adding personnel to direct traffic on downtown L.A. streets.