Can't Stop Himself

Overlea man's life took an odd detour when he fell in love with traffic signals.

July 01, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Christopher Laughland was a toddler when he first became mesmerized by the blinking lights and fluorescent road signs shepherding his family through the dark.

"It all started when I was about 2 years old. My parents would take long trips from Baltimore to New York to visit my grandparents," Laughland writes in a history of his obsession.

Primal memories of benevolent beacons inspired Laughland's preoccupation with traffic safety control devices: "I was drawn to the lights, the ones that flashed at night. The signs and the materials used on the roads that when the light hit them they stood out so bright and the colors I remember so clear. I wanted those things for myself even though I did not understand what traffic devices were all about."

In an industry that would stupefy most with its tedious standards and arcane minutiae, Laughland, 35, of Overlea, finds intrigue and reassurance. He never tires of researching the role played by traffic safety control devices and the forms they take.

That such simple objects, aligned in a strategic way, allow traffic to detour safely around hazards and work zones, is endlessly fascinating to him. In a larger sense, these objects represent for Laughland the work of a breed apart, those who protect travelers from harm. It is practically a sacred trust, to hear him speak about it.

It is also a trust that Laughland shares as a traffic control supervisor in construction zones on highways and interstates for Priceless Industries, a Baltimore County company. "I go out, and I close lanes or set up detours or close roads or divert traffic through a safe and proper manner," says Laughland, who is certified in the "maintenance of traffic" by the Maryland State Highway Administration and the American Traffic Safety Services Association.

He also has assembled one of the world's most comprehensive collections of traffic safety control devices. David McKee, ATSSA's director of member services and technical assistance, speaks of the immensity of Laughland's collection: "He has created his own world of roadway safety devices. ... I believe he's created that world, and not only does that world give him a sense of comfort and satisfaction, but it also gives him a place in the world. These things do save lives."

Laughland's home is a showcase for obsolete civic sculpture, including a firebox, pay telephone, hydrant and Baltimore street light cut to fit the living room. His interior turf struggle with wife Sandra has been resolved by a mix of traditional furniture and artist Diana Marta's exuberant paintings of fluorescent safety drums and other traffic devices. Out back, crash barrels make roomy dog houses for the Laughlands' pets.

A fidgety guy nursing a cigarette and a Coke, Laughland warns a visitor that the first-floor display is nothing: "It's gonna get deeper. It's gonna get a lot deeper."

Over the next three hours, Laughland, with a compulsiveness that borders on the strange, gives a detailed history of roadway safety devices, starting with the oil lanterns that illuminated routes for Model T's and running through the latest solar models and light-emitting diode devices.

He can tell you about obscure ma-and-pa businesses begun in garages and grown into empires. He waxes poetic on the Toledo torch, the Deitz highway torch and the Neo Flasher, and knows that the first traffic cone, an upside-down metal funnel painted white, appeared in the 1920s, but that cones weren't made commercially until the 1950s.

The bulk of Laughland's collection on display lines his bedroom shelves. A working traffic signal guards Laughland's bed (the frame is a converted camping trailer), and road signs with warnings such as "Slippery When Wet" are posted above.

Thousands of larger pieces and duplicates are stored in the basement and backyard shed.

Laughland's dream is to open the Museum of Historical Traffic Safety Control Devices. "The railroad has a museum," he says. So why not a traffic museum? "There's a lot of history that's been lost," he says. "But I've accumulated a lot of history that won't be lost."

Another of Laughland's ambitions is to write the definitive history of traffic safety control devices, which evolved from railroad safety systems, and "really exploded from 1948 to 1958" with the emergence of the interstate highway system.

"Before you have a child, you wonder, `Is this child going to be a poet or an explorer?'" Laughland's mother, Sally, says. "That was so many years ago. I was idealistic and kind of naive. But I was sure, being the first one, that he was going to be a poet. Now I look back and I laugh. In a very roundabout sense, he has the vision that a poet might have."

Her son's gift is his ability to "look at things that to other people are no good and junk," says Sally Laughland, a University of Baltimore library associate. "From the time he was walking, he was interested in tires. We were really the bane of the neighborhood. He would wheel home all these tires. I'd say, `Enough is enough.'"

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