How Shoulders Got Their Stripes

by | Nov 17, 2021


John Dorr, a protege of Thomas Edison, founded an engineering firm that made him extremely wealthy. In 1940 he used a chunk of that wealth to create the Dorr Foundation to support scientific projects in the areas of metallurgy and chemistry. But an observation in the late 1940s by Dorr’s wife, Nell, changed the course of the foundation. Nell’s observation was that at night headlight glare from oncoming traffic interfered with drivers’ ability to determine where they were on the road, causing them to either hug the center line or to swerve away from the center line onto the soft shoulder of the highway, resulting in a high frequency of accidents in both cases. Bad weather exacerbated the problem.

Dorr thought of a simple solution to the problem: paint white stripes dividing the road from the shoulder. This, he thought, would significantly reduce accidents because drivers could hug the white shoulder stripe instead of the center line and unlike the center stripe, a shoulder stripe would be away from oncoming headlight glare. Shoulder stripes would also enhance the safety of pedestrians.

Dorr’s foundation lobbied the Connecticut Highway Department to test the shoulder stripe theory on a 38-mile stretch of highway. The results were clear — striping the shoulder improved automobile position on the road and led to fewer accidents. New York soon followed with their own test which found that during a seven-month period accidents dropped 55% after striping the shoulders of a stretch of the Hutchinson River Parkway.

Even with the Connecticut and New York test cases showing clear benefit to shoulder striping, highway departments across the country were reluctant to implement the change because of the $150 per mile it would cost to do so. Additionally, some officials worried that shoulder stripes could be confused with the center stripe and lead to more accidents. Other state officials thought that shoulder stripes would only be effective on roads with paved shoulders while others thought the opposite — that stripes were only a benefit where shoulders were unpaved.

In response to the reservations of highway officials, the Dorr Foundation organized and supported further studies in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, and Connecticut — which all showed clear benefits to shoulder striping. Newspaper editorials and articles highlighted the studies organized by the Dorr Foundation and urged highway officials to act. By the early 1960s, public sentiment in favor of shoulder striping was near-universal.

The simple act of painting shoulder stripes has prevented countless accidents, injuries, and deaths since the 1950s. The lessons to learn from the Dorr Foundation’s push for this change include:

  • Merely bringing a good idea to light doesn’t automatically lead to change. I’ve seen this phenomenon throughout my career — good ideas need a champion with the persistence to spur change.
  • The status quo is hard to overcome. This is especially true if proposed changes require an expenditure of time, effort, and money.
  • It’s important to be flexible. John Dorr easily could have decided not to take on the shoulder striping problem because it wasn’t within the original mission of his foundation. Being open to other areas to bring about positive change saved many lives.
  • Wanting to do “good” in the world is great, but to make a difference you need to set out to accomplish something specific. Had the Dorr Foundation just spread money around a bunch of different “traffic safety” initiatives it would not have made the sort of impact it did by focusing on one specific thing

Postscript: while striped shoulders are good, rumble strips paired with stripes are better. A 2014 study found that the installation of rumble strips on rural, two-lane highways reduced crashes by 14% over shoulder striping alone.

Here are some other White Stripes:


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