Things you didn’t know about traffic cones

WE spend an awful lot of time in our cars, don’t we? And those of us who live close to the A303 spend a fair amount of time stuck in traffic jams or at road-works along it. Sometimes there is evidence of working. Most times it’s just cones.

On Sunday, coming back from being utterly bowled over by Sylvie Guillem’s farewell performance at Sadlers Wells, we braced ourselves for the usual congestion on the M3, but the traffic was moving. There were just cones. Miles of cones. Miles and miles of cones. Cones separating a lane from the rest of the road and cones lining the hard shoulder. No indication why. Just miles and thousands of cones.

It makes you think. Why?

We are old enough to remember John Major and his cone hotline. We often joked about it, and wondered who rang it. And what did they say? Probably some people bellowed expletives down the phone at their frustration and maybe some people asked politely. But the message would always be the same – why are there so many and where are the workers or even signs of the work which the cones are presumably intended to warn us about or to protect us and the workers from each other?

But over the weekend, as we crossed Seven Dials heading for Wyndhams Theatre to see the great production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo (yes, it was a bit of a culture-feast, with a visit to the unmissable Ravilious exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery as well), we first heard and then spotted a wonderful use for the much-maligned traffic cone.

Musical instrument. Yep. You got it. Somebody had found a way to make music from a cone. Not banging it (ideally over a Highways Department bureaucrat’s head). Blowing it. A busker was sitting on the pavement and playing – blowing – a proper red and white plastic traffic cone. When The Saints Come Marching In. Who knew you could play a traffic cone?

So here are a few more facts you may not know about traffic cones, and a general invitation to use your imagination to find some enjoyable purpose for these objects which spend so much time sitting on tarmac being sworn at.

Traffic cones, says Wikipedia helpfully, are “usually cone-shaped.” Good start. They are also called road cones, traffic pylons, highway cones, safety cones, witch’s hat or construction cones,

They were invented in 1940 by an American called Charles D Scanlon, who got the idea while working as a painter for the street painting department of the City of Los Angeles. The patent for his invention was granted in 1943. Traffic cones were first used in the UK in 1958, when the M6 motorway opened. They replaced the red lantern paraffin burners which were used during construction on the Preston bypass.

Originally they were made of concrete (probably less easy to steal than today’s plastic ones, which do end up in some very odd places). Nowadays they are made of thermoplastic or rubber, and can also be made from recycled plastic (it’s good to know there is a use for all that plastic that you carefully sort and wash and put in the recycling bag or bin).

You can get traffic cones in many different sizes, from the biggest three-foot model to the tiny 12 inch cone which is described as being for indoor or outdoor “application”. Makes the mind boggle – how would you APPLY a cone in your house? (Of course, you do occasionally see a cone standing duty to warn you that the ladies toilet is out of action, and they can be used to mark areas in indoor sports halls or other large spaces.)

Cones have found their way into art, sometimes as a political statement – putting a traffic cone on the head of a statue of a politician or a general is a nice way of indicating your contempt. The German electronic rock group Kraftwerk had a traffic cone on their 1970 first album cover, which was said to be a nod to Andy Warhol and the pop art movement.

You can wear a traffic cone costume – like the stag party who temporarily disrupted traffic in Newquay at the weekend. Described by the local paper as “human traffic cones” they were said to have “manoeuvred themselves around parked cars, briefly bringing traffic to a halt.” They were apparently “generally well received” says the paper, with a total humour bypass. One photo allegedly shows a car hitting a cone or the cone jumping onto a bonnet, and they were duly moved on by staff at the nearby pub.

You can buy traffic cones on eBay. Of course you can. You can buy anything on eBay. Amazon’s DIY and Tools store even sells packs of them. Just think – you could make your own traffic cone band, or you could cone off your street and sit back and watch the fun.

Fanny Charles