It is hard to imagine a time when traffic was not highly regulated the way that it is today. It is almost as difficult as imagining life without the automobile and the paved roads that now crisscross the United States. But we must not forget that traffic regulation we now take for granted is only about a century old.
Indeed, if you've used Google today, you may have noticed that the Google "doodle" pays homage to the 100th anniversary of the electric traffic light (or 101st anniversary, depending on how you do the math). According to news sources, the world's first electric traffic light was installed at an intersection in Cleveland, Ohio on August 5, 1914. Unlike today's traffic signals, the one in Cleveland just used red and green lights. Yellow would not be added until about 1923, when another Cleveland man patented the three-color signal and sold the invention to General Electric for mass production.
Prior to 1914, traffic signals (not lights) had been in use in a few other places, but most cities relied on live traffic control from policemen. The inventor, James Hoge, did not patent the device until about 1918. And although a slightly more primitive traffic light debuted in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1912, Hoge's is still widely considered to be the first electric traffic signal.
According to the History Channel's website, "navigating America’s roads [back then] was a chaotic experience, with pedestrians, bicycles, horses and streetcars all competing with motor vehicles for right of way." Unfortunately, that sentiment largely rings true today (save for fewer horses on our roads, of course). Certainly, car accidents are still a major problem, especially at intersections.
Hopefully, we can appreciate the major advancements in traffic regulation and automobile technology that have made motor vehicle travel much safer and more pleasant over the past century. At the same time, we should realize that there is still a lot of work to be done.