Welcome to the newest edition of The Why. “Why do cars have red taillights?” you ask? Good question. (Besides, it beats answering the question: “Why does my mom say they stopped making one-piece front seats because you’re not supposed to ‘do stuff’ in cars? Can’t you ‘do stuff’ even easier in the backseat?” Seriously? Your rascally writer tends to date women who have their own places but still . . . don’t your front seats go way, way, way back?)
So why do cars have red taillights? Your curmudgeonly chronicler can only tell you they’ve been that way for decades.
In fact, it’s been that way for so long it’s one of those things we don’t usually question. Let’s consult today’s expert.
Jason Torchinsky, contributor to Jalopnik confirms that “the fundamental division of white lights front/red lights rear actually goes quite far back.” He adds “Initially, in the very infancy of motorized transportation, say in the early 1800s, the only lights a motor carriage was likely to have would be simple clear lanterns for improved forward vision.”
Since not everyone had a car, folks probably didn’t need taillights. A lot of folks took the train which probably had something to do with taillights.
Again, Torchinsy agrees: “Lights at the rear would only really be necessary when you actually had a communication need to other vehicles, and in these early stages of motoring, that hadn’t really been considered yet. But it soon did become an issue, just not exactly with cars. The first need for visual vehicular communication came from . . . the train.”
Torchinsky confirmed that “Trains, which became commercially viable long before (cars)” needed to signal a lot. “In fact . . . the standard red-stop/green-go dichotomy” originated from railroad signals.
Cars may have red taillights because the color is associated with danger. Torchinsky agrees noting that “many poisonous berries” and “one of our most basic visual associations of danger — large splashes of blood — are quite read as well. Red is noticeable, and we . . . read it as an alarm color.”
While his research didn’t yield an official answer he believes cars have red taillights because “there’s an implicit ‘stop’ message you’d like to send from the rear of any moving vehicle, to prevent vehicles behind you from . . . not stopping.” He adds that “maybe more important to late 1800s railroad operators . . . cost. Why go through the expense and hassle of introducing a new light color . . . when you already were ordering and using red-lensed lanterns?”
He concludes: “So, cars have red glowing @sses not from any sort of sick baboon-in-estrus fetish, but rather as a direct inheritance from the car’s direct ancestor, the train. It’s worth remembering that trains, in many ways, are just an early evolutionary branch off the same tree that cars came from, and it makes sense some of their DNA is still found in modern cars today.”
Why do cars have red taillights? Now you know.
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