D. O. "Spike" Helmick is the retired Commisioner of the California Highway Patrol

Spike Helmick, Retired CHP Commissioner

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Driver education has changed since we were children. Many public schools no longer offer driver education or driver training.

This simple and effective safety tool has many uses

You see them on city streets and superhighways serving as protective barriers or funneling traffic down to a drizzle. There are literally millions of them in California, across the United States and throughout the world.

They’re traffic safety cones, sometimes called orange dunces, witches’ hats, or upside down ice cream cones. They also can be a nuisance if you’re in a hurry to get someplace, or a lifesaver if you’re the worker out on the freeway shoulder.

“I’ve sold millions of them over the years,” said Joseph Berry, one of America’s top orange cone salesmen. “There is a great market for them. I’ve been selling construction equipment for a half century now and, in volume, they are the biggest sellers I’ve ever come across.”

QQPat-This next paragraph seems like B.S.
“Originally,” said Berry, “the cones were yellow. But back in the ‘70’s the federal government said they should be orange - so they’ve been that color ever since.”

It was Charles Terry, founder of the Interstate Rubber Products Company (IRPC) in Los Angeles, who invented the cones some 50 years ago. Making them was easy, but convincing local officials they would be useful on the roads was a much greater challenge.

“Back in the ‘40’s,” says Carl Petty, former sales manager for IRPC, “they used to put wooden stakes in the road to form a protective barrier, at least that was the technique used on the west coast.” But passing cars would knock the stakes over, he explained, resulting in varying degrees of vehicle damage including flat tires, minor scratches or door and fender dents.

“One day,” Petty said, “Charles noticed that some highway workers had taken the inner lining from a rubber tube tire and twisted it into a cone shaped affair. These twisted inner linings were being used to protect workers from the traffic - and they worked.”

Terry was so impressed he made a few cones out of rubber, then asked Los Angeles officials if they were interested in using them. Unexpectedly, the city fathers laughed at him, claiming his rubber yellow cones were ridiculous.

“Charles decided dramatic action was needed,” Petty continued. “He gave the city 500 of his cones free-of-charge and asked city engineers to try them out. He figured once they were tested, the highway experts would love them. And that’s exactly what happened. Charles’ free cones were a big success.”

When the cones first appeared on the roads back in the late ‘40’s, motorists steered clear of them because they looked as though they were made of cement. Even when drivers realized the cones were made of rubber, they still avoided them, not wanting to run the risk of damaging their cars.

Within a very short time, the city fathers were clamoring for more cones and Terry’s new invention became part of the necessary safety equipment for construction crews throughout California.

“Later on,” Petty added, “One of our best men, C.R. Fitzgerald, moved to New Jersey and introduced the cones in that part of the country. They have been selling like hot cakes ever since.”

East coast highway engineer Charles Martin said the cones have been popular because they cause “little in the way of damage to vehicles, they are also easy to spot,” he added. “Those old fashioned wooden horses, they once used on the roads caused a great deal of damage when they were hit by a vehicle. The traffic cones are a great improvement.”

The worlds most awesome display of orange cones could be found back in the ‘70’s every weekday morning on the expressway in Boston, isolating a single lane while they protected buses traveling the wrong way on the highway. There were almost 600 cones, each spaced 80 feet apart, to form this daily rush hour barrier.

The cones were quickly adapted to many off highway uses and, over the years, have gained acceptance form all areas of society. Football teams have been using them for years in strategy sessions; cones have been used in driver education programs as well as to mark the courses in sports car races. Even tiny t-ball players put baseballs on top of them and practice their swinging - hitting techniques,Petty said.

Although the number of uses has grown, the cones have changed very little over the years. Fifty years ago, Charles Terry could not have the myriad of uses people would find for his safety cones, including designating walkways inside buildings or drawing attention to just washed floors inside super markets. Come to think of it, back in the ‘40’s when Charles had his brainstorm, we didn’t have shopping malls or supermarkets. There’s no telling, and no limit, to the creative uses people can find for these simples - yet effective - safety devices.

Charles Terry would be proud.

Law Enforcement Sites

The Official CHP WebSite

The CHP 11-99 Foundation was created to provide benefits to California Highway Patrol employees and their families

The California Association of Highway Patrolmen (CAHP) is a labor association whose primary purpose is to work for the benefit of all California Highway Patrol officers.

Other Sites

Mothers Against Drunk Driving