Who was William Phelps Eno? American Businessman Considered “Father of Road Safety”


Who was William Phelps Eno? The life of William Phelps Eno, inventor of the stop sign, author of the first traffic regulation handbook, and considered the father of road safety.

William Phelps Eno

William Phelps Eno (Source : wikipedia.org)

William Phelps Eno (June 3, 1858 – December 3, 1945) was an American businessman who is considered by many to be responsible for the earliest innovations in highway safety and traffic control. Although he never learned to drive, he is sometimes referred to as the ” Father of Road Safety “.

Innovations attributed to Eno include traffic controls, mandatory stop sign, pedestrian crossing, roundabout, one-way streets, taxi rank and pedestrian safety islands. The plan to reroute traffic was implemented at Columbus Circle in New York in 1905, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1907, at Piccadilly Circus in 1926, and at Rond Point on the Champs-Élysées in 1927.

Eno was born in New York City as the youngest child of Lucy Jane Phelps, daughter of Amos R. Eno and Elisha Phelps. He attended Hopkins Grammar School and Williston Academy in New Haven and graduated from Yale University in 1882, of which Skull and Bones was a member. William Phelps Eno died of bronchopneumonia and is buried in Center Cemetery in Simsbury, Connecticut.

Traffic Controls

While cars were rare, Eno was an old man, horse-drawn carriages already causing significant traffic problems in urban areas such as Eno’s hometown of New York. In 1867, when he was 9 years old, he and his mother were stuck in a traffic jam. He later wrote: “That first traffic jam (years before motor cars became commonplace) will always remain in my memory. There were just over a few dozen horses and wagons, and all it took was a small order to hold it. traffic is flowing. Still no one knew exactly what to do; neither the drivers nor the police knew anything about traffic control.” As reported in 1909:


Traffic control in New York City was unknown until the early 1900s, and traffic jams were frequent in the city, although the number of commuters, automobiles, delivery cars, trucks, and other vehicles was much less than today. While costs were proportional to the time spent, most of the time was spent moving goods from one point to another, especially in central shopping areas. Fights between police, drivers and taxi drivers were common, and in most cases blockades could only be lifted by resorting to the “night stick”. There was no road traffic agency, no traffic team and no officers working to move vehicles on the street.

These conditions sparked a lot of complaints and criticism in private and public, but nothing was done to rectify the situation until William Phelps Eno, a public citizen who spent his winters in Washington, devoted himself to creating change. Eno claimed that three things are necessary to achieve anything interesting:

  1. To have concise, simple and fair, easy to understand, observable and applicable rules in legal proceedings.
  2. These rules need to be known and disseminated so well that there is no excuse for not knowing.
  3. Police should be empowered and instructed to implement them, and men should be trained for this purpose.

In 1900 Eno wrote a piece on road safety entitled Urgently Necessary Reform in Our Road Traffic. He wrote a city traffic code for New York in 1903 , the first such code in the world, and later designed traffic plans for New York, London, and Paris.

Columbus Circle rotary plan in Eno's Street Traffic Regulation, 1909

Columbus Circle rotary plan in Eno’s Street Traffic Regulation, 1909 (Source : wikipedia.org)

Rotaries (Traffic Offices)

During that year, Eno proposed the first version of what he called the “turning or turning traffic system”, what is now known as roundabouts or traffic circles. In his 1920 book, Eno wrote, “In 1903, the New York Police Department asked what plan might be recommended for Columbus Circle, where accidents occur almost daily. They recommended that the vehicles go around the circle in one direction, going to the right. The plan was activated in 1905. The system was activated at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1907, but it is unclear whether it was sent from New York due to the proposal. His 1909 book, Control of Highway Traffic, includes a diagram of the Columbus Circle roundabout. The stop sign has 8 edges.

Eno also seems to have introduced the use of one-way streets, as he records in The Science of Highway Traffic Control 1899-1920, page 39: York in the spring of 1908; in Boston in the fall of the same year; In 1909 in Paris, it has been very common ever since, and in 1910 in Buenos Aires. It is currently used in many cities of the world».

Leave A Reply