Zebra Crossings – A Brief History

The Belisha Beacon

Many younger people probably don’t even know what a Belisha Beacon is, but we’re all very familiar with what they look like. They’re the flashing amber lights that stand on top of the black and white poles at zebra crossings. They’re called this after the minister for transport (Leslie Hore-Belisha) who oversaw their launch way back in 1934.

Originally, large metal studs across the road surface marked the approach to a pedestrian crossing. These didn’t stand out that much during the day, never mind at night. So the Ministry for Transport took the decision to install these beacons in order to make them more visible to motorists. Initially they were just lit globes; but to make them more obvious an update to the flashing beacon we’re more familiar with today was introduced.

zebra crossingsThe Zebra Crossing

In 1951, after experiments at the Transport & Road Research Laboratory, the TRL added the now ubiquitous black and white stripes. It was apparently the MP James Callaghan who saw the design and remarked how it resembled a zebra, that the new crossing earned its name. The Slough council installed the first zebra crossing in 1951.

In the early 1970’s zig-zag lines on the approach at both sides replaced the older metal studs. These mark the area in which drivers must obey the rules of the crossing:

    • You must stop for anyone who has stepped onto the crossing
    • No overtaking another moving vehicle…
    • or one which has stopped to allow people to cross
    • No parking

Further experimentation in making crossings safer led to LED ‘halos’ around the Belisha Beacon. The advantage of these is not only that they are brighter than the standard bulbs; but they are also more energy efficient.

The Department for Transport added translucent illuminated areas to poles on some crossings. Although there is some debate over the effectiveness of these. They certainly light up the crossing; but some say that the bright light makes it harder to spot the dark shape of a pedestrian stood behind them.

Pelican Crossings

After changes in legislation in 1997, councils gradually phased out zebra crossings.  The newer and much safer Pelican crossing started to appear. This led to the development of other variations such as the Toucan crossing, the Puffin crossing, and even the Pegasus crossing. There may come a time in the not too distant future when the zebra may become an endangered species. Other animals are taking over!


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