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Before traffic lights - hand signals
by police and road users

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What 'point duty' was

policeman on point duty

A policeman on point duty. A family photo.

In the early days of motoring there were virtually no traffic lights. When junctions were busy at certain times, a policeman would go on what was called 'point duty' or 'traffic duty', where he would stand in the middle of the cross roads and direct the traffic. With some crossroads which were continually busy, he would stand on a small pedestal, so that the traffic could see him. (One does wonder of course how 'busy' was busy because there were so few cars on the roads in the first part of the 20th century.)

AA men would also stop and direct the traffic in the same way, if they came upon a road junction or accident where motorists were being held up.

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The policeman's hand signals

The policeman would stand facing one direction with his right arm raised, palm forward, to stop oncoming traffic which was facing him. He might also be holding his left arm horizontally to stop the traffic behind him. He allowed traffic to proceed with a scooping movement with his right hand; palm facing himself and bent arm rotating towards him.

Such signals are intuitive and we still use the same ones ourselves in everyday life.

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Hand signals to the policeman on point duty

As all traffic had to stop and wait to be directed by a policeman on point duty, the motorists used specific hand signals to tell him where they wanted to go.

Cyclists used similar signals.

These signals grew into disuse with the development of trafficators and then flashing lights.

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Hand signals to other road users

Hand signals were used by motorists to tell other road users where they were going:

There was also an unofficial hand signal to call motorists behind to pass or overtake. It was to put the arm through the window and use a scooping motion.

Cyclists used similar signals.

Page contributed by Mike Wheale in association with his father, Les Wheale (born April, 1914)

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.