Pedestrian crossings are older than cars. In fact, the street crossings date back to the pedestrian crossings that archaeologists found in the ancient cities of the Roman Empire. They consisted of raised stepping stones through which the wheels of the carts fitted exactly. The oldest surviving pedestrian crossing in the world is believed to be in the ruined city of Pompeii near the Italian metropolis of Naples.
In the Middle Ages and early modern times, however, crossings fell somewhat out of fashion. Only when more and more cars started to travel the world's roads in the 20th century and accidents became more frequent did the safety of pedestrians come back into focus. The first attempts were made by the city of London. There, the administration introduced the first pedestrian crossings in 1948, delineated by parallel dotted lines. Just one year later, however, the United Nations in Geneva agreed on common road markings, which also specified the design of the crossings. Inspiration was found in antiquity. Instead of stepping stones, the decision-makers opted for thick white lines.
The ancient models and the modern zebra crossings not only look similar, their effect is also comparable. They create attention. No matter which vehicle - the driver notices immediately that they cannot simply keep going here, but must show consideration. Whereas ancient cart drivers were forced to cross slowly by the stepping stones alone, today signage draws attention to the crossing in advance. In many countries, there is a blue sign just before the zebra crossing showing a figure running across the horizontal stripes or dashed lines. In more critical places, the image can be found on the red and white warning triangle. Both signs signal to vehicle drivers that they should approach the crossing at a moderate speed and watch out for pedestrians. In some countries, such as Germany, the sign even marks the beginning of a no-overtaking zone. This is because the crossings are intended to create safety for the most vulnerable road users, who are not protected by a vehicle. It does not matter whether priority must be given to those on foot or whether it is only a recommendation. That varies from country to country. Thanks to their protective function, the zebra crossings play an important role especially for children who walk to school without adults, for example.
In Germany, pedestrian crossings are colloquially called zebra crossings. However, this is not because they look like animals, but because of the Zebra campaign that the police and daily newspapers carried out jointly in Hamburg on 24 April 1954. At that time in Germany, giving priority to pedestrians was only a recommendation and not an obligation. Drivers who nevertheless stopped at zebra crossings on the day of campaign were given a sticker with a zebra on it, which was an acronym for "sign of a particularly considerate driver" in German. Soon after, the term zebra crossing became established throughout Germany.