Prom season will soon be upon us. Tuxedoes will be rented and corsages affixed. Graduates will sit wearing gowns before platforms adorned with distinguished faculty. Speeches will be given and advice dispensed. Were I to be asked to bestow words of wisdom to a group of bright, young things about to embark on this adventure we call life, I would tell them frankly: “Get yourself a couple of orange traffic cones. Get three if you can. There are few things in this world more magical and powerful than an orange traffic cone.”
Knowledge, they say is power. An orange traffic cone is real power. If you want to block a road or claim a lane you can’t just snap your fingers and say, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If you have two orange traffic cones, however, place them on the pavement and that street is closed. No one will question it. The cones have spoken.
Anyone who disputes the “power of the pylon” should navigate any Canadian city. They are infested by orange cones. If I was able to give a second piece of advice, I would tell graduates, “Invest heavily in any publicly traded company that manufactures orange traffic cones.” There is a never-ending demand for them. It is impossible to travel three blocks in Toronto without seeing at least one orange traffic cone. They are an invasive species.
There are so many littered around Montreal, that in April the CBC reported that Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault declared that her department would lessen “the number of cones tied to roadwork managed by her department” and have cones removed 72 hours after work is completed. Her announcement came after La Presse “reported that a row of orange cones had sat along the on-ramp to a tunnel in the city’s downtown for at least 16 years.”
Montreal is not alone. There are no studies to back it up, but I’m sure there are more orange traffic cones in most Canadian cities than there are raccoons. Orange traffic cones, it should be noted, are more powerful than raccoons. If you place a raccoon on the road drivers will merely avoid it. If you place a dead raccoon on the road, they will roll over it. If you place an orange traffic cone on the road, they will be repelled like vampires from garlic.
That’s the tyranny of the cone. Give a man a fish and he will eat, teach a man to fish and he will eventually grow tired of eating fish. Give a man 100 orange traffic cones and he can shut down Highway 401 for as long as he likes.
These orange devils were invented in 1940 by Charles D. Scanlon, a painter with the Los Angeles Streets Department. Dismayed by the awkward wooden tripods the city used to signify road work, he developed a cone-shaped marker to keep cars from driving over wet paint. He had a prototype built by 1941, a patent for the “Safety Marker” by 1943 and by 1949, Interstate Rubber Products Corporation was manufacturing rubber cones and the City of Los Angeles was using them to mark lane expansions during rush hour.
Isador D. Blumenthal, president of Radiator Specialty Company, wanted to produce his own version. According to auto journalist Bryan Gerould, Blumenthal “eventually realized that because Scanlon’s safety marker was a cone-shaped derivative of other historical objects, he could legally argue that the cone wasn’t a novel invention but merely a replication, and thus under less-ironclad copyright protections … He began making strikingly similar traffic cones en masse, tweaking the shape of the base (a square versus Scanlon’s circle) in a transparent attempt to skirt infringement claims.”
The result was the infamous “Cone War” of the late 1950s between rival manufacturers. There were many lawsuits, but no lives were lost. By the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) stipulated that traffic cones must be painted yellow or orange-yellow and have a red trim. By the 1970s, the MUTCD determined that cones must be a minimum of 18 inches or higher (46 centimetres) and 28 inches (71 centimetres) for use on highways. Modern traffic cones are high black and orange cylinders, which look a little like football tackling dummies.
Today orange traffic cones control where, when, if and how drivers and cyclists get around. There is no “cone control” in Canada. Anyone can buy an orange traffic cone, regardless of criminal record and place it anywhere they want. Legally, they are not allowed to obstruct traffic without a permit, but as King Louis the 14th of France used to say, “It is legal because I wish it.” And so, the law does not stop everyday citizens from placing orange cones on the street whenever they want to save a parking spot. It doesn’t stop private contractors from tossing orange cones around the street like Johnny Appleseed scattering seeds.
Those employed or contracted by the city, province or federal government have the most orange-traffic-cone might. They can block streets, eliminate lanes, occupy reams of parking and just about any other kind of disruption you can imagine. Where there is a cone, there is a way.
Were I able to provide a third piece of advice to graduates it would be this: Do not fight the orange crush. Yield.
If you can’t beat them, obey them.