How line markings became indispensable to our road systems

Posted 1st May 2020

In many ways, road and line markings are the unsung heroes of our road and highway systems. Even as we’ve come to rely on technologies like speed cameras and sensors, the simple use of paint continues to keep us safe, guiding us consciously and unconsciously along the nation’s roads.

But as we move away from the gearshift and into the future, line markings may have a crucial role to play in the way that cars will function on the road in years to come. Once just an afterthought to many drivers, it’ll be these markings that bring the dream of self-driving vehicles to life.  

Life Before Road Markings

Of course, driving existed long before the double yellow line, even before we had engines to power our journeys to and from work. But a standardised road marking system was not introduced in the UK until 1928, and even then markings were only used to denote places where drivers needed to stop, such as junctions and intersections. 

As car usage increased, line markings had to change and adapt in order to keep drivers and pedestrians safe, as well as to maintain order on the road. Initially this meant single white lines to divide the road down the middle, and separate traffic more safely. Over time, owning a car became a much more affordable and feasible option for many families, and this increased the demand for parking. In the 1950s, yellow lines were introduced in order to communicate restrictions for parking, stopping and loading, in a bid to prevent roadsides from becoming too cluttered.  

While some have argued against the use of road markings for modern day road systems, claiming that getting rid of them could help to regulate speed, these concepts are still very much in the research phase. In the meantime, technology is advancing at such a rapid rate that road markings may take on a completely different purpose within as little as 50 years.

Where We’re Going We Need Markings

Self-driving cars, or autonomous driving systems, may have seemed like something out of a sci-fi film not ten years ago. Now, vehicle technology is advancing at such a rate that they could be in active use within a generation. As the technology available to us advances, line markings will become even more crucial to automation than they already are. 

At the moment, line markings help to aid in and facilitate what is known as Level 1 and Level 2 automation. Level 1 automation essentially acts as assisted braking, and is available in many new cars already in circulation. This technology relies on camera-assisted sensors that alert the driver to any obstructions or hazards. The same camera technology also provides lane tracking or warning if a car drifts outside of its road markings, as well as auditory cues to the driver, who must then adjust their steering accordingly. 

Level 2 automation takes this technology one step further, creating an advanced cruise control system that can steer the car in relation to road markings, rather than the driver performing the action. Although both of these systems are already in use and do rely on the driver being in control of the vehicle at all times, it’s already obvious just how vital clear road markings are even for any automated system. Even to alert the driver, the camera sensors on the vehicle must be able to detect clear pathways and marks. 

The next stage of automation would theoretically allow the driver to surrender control of the vehicle to the automated system, only needing to take back control when prompted to do so. Levels 4 and 5 would require even less human intervention, and allow for fully automated vehicles with no driver input whatsoever. 

However, even with a Level 3 automated vehicle, road markings are central to the safety of the driver and other road users. Even though the majority of road accidents happen due to human error, we can at least rely on intuition, experience and muscle memory while driving, even if there are no lines on the road. A vehicle operated by a computer, however, is completely reliant on the information around it, which it then processes to make decisions on where to go. In other words, if it can’t see what’s around it, it may not be able to drive. 

That means that not only are road markings going to be integral to the future of automated vehicles, but the quality of the markings will be more important than ever. Requirements and conditions of lane markings for camera vision will have to include factors such as all-weather visibility, durability, dirt resistance, retro-reflectivity and colour contrast. 

So where current technology may be falling out of love with the idea of road markings, the future for the industry looks rosy. Even though it’s likely that an age of fully automated cars would still see a mixture of man and machine, both will benefit from the increase in demand for line markings. The 21st century may very well be the age of the machine, but even a robot is nothing without one of the simplest tools at our disposal for keeping road networks safe. 



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