Stopping Start

Paulena Verzeano holds a wooden prototype of a traffic signal that her mother designed... ROY MUSITELLI PHOTO/3-14-06

Starting with a simple paring knife and a sack of potatoes, an Ashland High School graduate invented a traffic control device that would help reduce fatalities on both U.S. coasts.

While not credited with inventing such devices as a whole, Vetabelle Phillips Carter developed an illuminated traffic signal in the 1920s that was adopted by numerous cities across the nation and is the forerunner of signals used today.

She was born in Seattle in 1899 and grew up in the Ashland home of her maternal grandparents, E.K. and Elizabeth Anderson.

Following high school, she put aside dreams of acting or dancing — which met with her family's disapproval — to study mathematics in Seattle. She then taught school until her marriage to an engineer, Fred M. Carter, in the 1920s.

When she and her husband settled in San Francisco, the woman who'd grown up traveling by horse and buggy was horrified at spiraling traffic-fatality rates. Carter set to work at her kitchen table to invent a solution with potatoes and a sharp knife.

After many practice models — which were later served for dinner — she came up with a prototype for an illuminated diamond-shaped through-street sign.

Later, she used some clay, cardboard and finally metal to refine her design, the end result of which was an illuminated flashing sign that read "STOP ARTERIAL."

The California Automobile Association installed 500 of Carter's signs. With accident rates reduced by as much as 35 percent at some intersections, the mayor of San Francisco honored Carter for her inventive mind and for solving the city's traffic woes. Carter's signs were adopted in numerous cities on both West and East coasts.

She and her husband formed the Phillips-Carter Traffic Signal Co., and the pair set out to develop other traffic control devices. Carter's own hometown was outfitted with several Phillips-Carter illuminated stop signs until the late 1970s.

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