Why is red the standard color for stop signs? The short answer is this: because the representatives of the First National Conference on Street and Highway Safety in 1924 decided so.
Though stop signs were still a relatively new idea in the United States back in the 1920s—Detroit erected the first one around 1915, Jalopnik reports—the “red means ‘stop’” custom dates back to 1841, when Henry Booth of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway suggested using red to indicate danger on railroads. London then adopted the color for its regular traffic lights in 1868, and the United States eventually followed suit.
The First National Conference on Street and Highway Safety, called by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1924, aimed to standardize the color coding of road signage. It established that for all “signs and signals, both luminous and nonluminous,” red should indicate “stop,” green should indicate “proceed,” and yellow should indicate “caution,” according to the report released after the conference [PDF]. It was also decided that distance and direction signs should be black and white.
That all probably sounds familiar if you’ve ever seen a street before, but implementing the mandate for red stop signs posed immediate issues. A red material that wouldn’t fade over time just didn’t exist in 1924, Gene Hawkins, a professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University, told The New York Times in 2011. So the writers of the 1935 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices chose the next best thing: yellow. The manual also specified that every sign should be octagonal, another idea from the 1920s.
California was first to figure out that porcelain enamel would resist fading and erect red stop signs across the state, a practice noticed and addressed in the 1954 revision [PDF] to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Now that red was more logistically feasible, the committee in charge of updating the manual decided there should be no more yellow stop signs.
We don’t know exactly why Henry Booth and other early industrialists felt that red aptly signaled “stop.” Maybe they thought it was harder to overlook than blue or green, which natural surroundings like water and foliage might easily camouflage. Maybe they felt red, like fire or blood, just went along well with danger.
There may also be a deeper reason. When, as part of a 2011 study, red-, blue-, and green-clad human experimenters offered apple slices to individual monkeys in a free-range facility, the monkeys seemed to have an aversion to taking slices left by the experimenter wearing red. Perhaps our association of danger with the color red has a psychological basis we don’t fully understand yet.