What Can You Learn from the Yield Sign Inventor?

There was already a rule in place about “yield right of way.” The law was on the books. But what was not available was a ready symbol, a sign, a reminder, an icon. So drivers just kept doing what they wanted to do. As a result, there were automobile accidents, which was unfortunate, but also law enforcement didn’t know where or how to assign fault.

Enter a bit of creative ingenuity. In 1950, Tulsa police officer Clinton Riggs had seen too many accidents at the intersection of Columbia Avenue and First Street. So he took matters into his own hands, and he designed and installed the first yield sign. Within a year, crashes at this location had dropped significantly, word spread, and the sign took off.

Riggs passed away in May 1997, and I happened to read his obituary. I remember being surprised to learn that the yield sign had an “inventor” – that someone had come up with the idea. Also that it was just a regular person working in the field – not the head of some universal department of public safety or a governor who ran on a platform of yield sign installation. Just a guy who saw a problem and had an idea.

So much happens around us where we think we have no control, and we say, “They should do something about XYZ. Somebody should fix that.” It didn’t take Einstein to invent the yield sign, however. It took someone who kept noticing that accidents were occurring AND who wanted to alleviate the problem AND who believed he could do something about it.

Maybe sum that up as: Awareness, Decision, Belief. You see a problem, decide to take an action, then proceed with confidence that you can make a difference. To go forward, you need those three things, right?

First, you’ve got to recognize that the problem exists (note: there is a bundle of scholarship under the heading “denial” that says awareness of a problem is not as frequent as you might expect.) Second, you’ve got to make a decision to take an action; decide what you’re going to do (or try) and do it. Third, in your core, there must be something that sustains you in the risk — such as: confidence in your abilities, support from your community, faith that God will be with you in the twists and turns.

In any case, the road to his solution was not an easy one for Riggs. Because of this other thing that happens: Opposition. Riggs was living out part of a well-known quote from Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If they’re any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

In a 1989 interview in the Pittsburgh Press, Riggs fleshed out some of the problem. It seems that in 1939, he was a fellowship student at the Northwestern University Institute of Safety. By now, stop signs had already been invented, and so had the problem of motorists rolling right through them. As Riggs’ class discussed this issue, he proposed the word “yield” for a sign.

Nobody but nobody liked that idea. Later, when he approached the National Safety Council, they basically said “thanks but no thanks.” Even later, in Tulsa, Riggs faced the opposition of the city attorney who didn’t think the word “yield” was strong enough to assign responsibility.

Even so, with his combination of awareness, decision and belief, Riggs pushed forward through the opposition. He and a guy who worked under him headed to the intersection in question with signs that said “Yield Right of Way” and “Slow.” They stayed all day and polled the drivers to see if they’d know what to do. They did. Further, this icon was so intuitive, it turns out, Riggs said many drivers thought they had seen the signs before.

So maybe add the word: Validation. Everybody needs that, don’t you think?

A hunch can get you started in the right direction. Or the wrong direction. So it’s good to seek input and data. Like maybe take your big idea to the corner of Columbia Avenue and First Street and say, “Hey, what do y’all think about this?”

“Test the spirits,” the Bible says. Anyone talking in human form plus those thoughts that enter your head could be wrong, even when they sound so right. Besides, you never know what’s hidden in what someone says, even possibly something that’s hidden from themselves.

In any case, I loved how this basic invention made a big difference. The yield sign was a highlight in an obituary that went national not because it didn’t matter, but because it did. So that’s why, in this increasing vocabulary collection, maybe add the word Yield.

So much of Christian life, good relationships, common courtesy are found within that word, and to get along in this world, we should keep it with us every day. Yield to someone else’s best interest, yield to another person’s turn, yield to an authority, yield to God a problem you cannot solve. Acknowledge that you can’t always fix what is broken. Give way when the situation warrants. In a word: Yield.

So, from one man’s story you get Awareness, Decision, Belief, Opposition, Validation, Yield and Be Nice. Wait, did I say “be nice?” I must not be finished with my point.

False Credit Report

Remember how I said Riggs lived out half of that Aiken quote about “don’t worry about people stealing your ideas?” Actually, someone tried to steal credit. That guy who helped him that day at that fateful intersection. Years later, he had called Riggs to ask his permission to write about the development of the yield sign for a traffic magazine article, but his article conveniently left out the name “Riggs.” As they’d say in the preschool class, “That’s not very nice.” When Riggs read the article, they stopped being friends.

It’s a tough road for most everybody, right? Be nice, even if it takes your full concentration, and help others enjoy their magnificent journey. Your thoughts?

— Minnie Lamberth
Volume 1, Issue 4