The Sigalert LA Motorists Know All Too Well Has a Storied Past

The sound of the sigalert LA motorists instantly recognize is like the heralding trumpets of apocalyptic angels. Equal parts curse and blessing, a Los Angeles sigalert could warn of any number of traffic disruptions: accidents, flooding, rockslides, wildfires. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear it in time to replan your route. Other times, it’s simply confirmation that you’ll be in a jam for a while. It’s part of life in LA. And for the most part, the sigalert has made our lives safer and easier. But if you’ve grown up with sigalerts, you may be surprised by its origin. 

The Growing Need for Real-Time Traffic Updates in Los Angeles

Photo credit: Tichnor Brothers

In just a few fast-paced decades, the U.S. interstate system was built, businesses expanded, suburbs became a thing, and every family suddenly needed a car. It wasn’t until the 1940s that automobiles were becoming commonplace enough for every household to need one. But by the 1950s, a glut of automobiles were regularly saturating roadways, including freeways. Car accidents and traffic jams were rapidly becoming a way of life. 

In those days when teeth were white or yellow but never blue, everyone was tuned to the radio. Therefore, radio stations began to update motorists on traffic conditions to the best of their limited abilities. This often meant calls to the Los Angeles Police Department (local police refused to tie up resources by proactively calling radio stations). However, with every station in the Greater Los Angeles area calling the LAPD at all hours, the phones were tied up regardless. Something had to give. 

Putting the “Sig” in Sigalert

It’s a common misconception in Southern California and beyond, that the term “sigalert” is simply a shortened nickname for “signal alert.” But the term is actually derived from the name of the system’s creator: Loyd C. Sigmon, known to friends as “Sig.” In 1955, Sigmon was working as an executive for Golden West Broadcasters. While Sigmon boasted a long relationship with the company, it was punctuated by his service to his country. 

During World War II, he served as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps where he oversaw radio communication unrelated to combat. Over a decade later, Sigmon believed that the technology and systems he used in the war could be the solution to LA’s traffic communications challenges. 

Sigmon set to work building a new kind of radio receiver which he paired with a connected reel-to-reel recorder. Triggered by a particular tone, the system would activate, recording the alert that followed. Sigmon assembled the device to the tune of $600, which would translate to just under $7,000 today. When Sigmon pitched his machine to Chief of Police William H. Parker, the LAPD head responded, “We’re going to name this damn thing Sigalert.” And thus the great Los Angeles sigalert, one of the earliest automatic radio alert systems, was born.

The Early Days of the Los Angeles Sigalert

But the sigalert LA residents are so familiar with would still take a moment to find its footing. LAPD Chief Parker wanted every radio station in the Greater LA area to have access to the sigalert receivers to avoid any accusations of favoritism. In the beginning, only a handful of stations adopted the technology. But this was enough to get the ball rolling… and, in some cases, the traffic too. 

The very first sigalert LA residents experienced went out on Labor Day in 1955. In these early years, the LAPD would initiate the process by recording and sending their bulletin. The receivers, emblazoned with “Sigalert” along their sides, would almost immediately spring into action with a red bulb signaling the receipt of a bulletin. Some models even featured audio alerts. Station engineers reserved the right to interrupt broadcasts for critical alerts.

But sigalerts didn’t always work as intended. Take for example an infamous case from January 1956 in which a Los Angeles sigalert was issued, drawing attention to a passenger train derailment near Union Station. The LAPD urged nearby doctors and nurses to head to the derailment site and assist with rescue efforts. In this case, the sigalert worked a little too well. Droves of doctors and nurses arrived at the crash site, ready to pitch in. Unfortunately, so did an army of rubberneckers. Rather than preventing a traffic jam, the sigalert caused one that’s still referenced decades later. 

The CHP Takes Control of the Sigalert LA Motorists Rely On

In 1969, the responsibility of the sigalert system transferred to the California Highway Patrol along with freeway jurisdiction. Up until that point, sigalerts had been used with varying effectiveness to draw attention to dam collapses, rabid dogs, and even a single instance of lethal prescription medication for a patient who fortunately happened to hear it. But the CHP had a narrower view of the sigalert program’s scope. 

Photo credit: Jvpriori

The CHP defines a sigalert as warranted for “any unplanned event that causes the closing of one lane of traffic for 30 minutes or more.” But before you get too comfortable with the definition, the California Department of Transportation has its own definition. According to Caltrans, any traffic incident jamming two or more lanes for at least two hours warrants a sigalert. But the definition of the sigalert LA departments disagree on is clear enough to anyone stuck in traffic. It’s simply assigning meaning to the day’s rush hour headache. 

The Sigalert in Modern Times

While the overall result of a sigalert is much the same as it ever was, the method of getting there has advanced with modern technology. Rather than delivering the sigalert LA veterans will recall as a verbatim message delivered in a police officer’s voice, radio personalities read the bulletins themselves directly from the CHP’s website. The CHP is consistent with posting sigalerts to their site and sending out broadcasts for radio and even television. They’re also responsible for the electronic alert signs that pepper Southern California freeways. 

The Sigalert Enters the Global Lexicon

The sigalert really hit the big time in 1993 when it was entered into the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Yet, there is no agreed-upon consensus for the term. The CHP seems to drift back and forth between “SIG Alert” and “Sigalert.” Meanwhile, Caltrans adheres to “Sig-Alert.” But no matter how you spell it, the sigalert LA residents grew up with is a firmly ingrained part of life in Southern California. At least until all of us own self-driving cars. 

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