It’s that time of year when thousands of those bright orange sentries of safety sprout from the broken asphalt of the region’s roadways.

Traffic cones.

Utilities and highway departments buy them by the truckload. Quite a few end up flattened in the line of duty by errant vehicles, or unceremoniously forgotten in potholes.

But many walk away, purloined to pursue new lives.

“When a project is active, securing the cones is a challenge,” said Barry O’Sullivan, spokesperson for Philadelphia Gas Works, which bought 5,000 cones last year. “It is not uncommon for individuals and even private contractors to remove cones from active work sites for any number of reasons, including holding parking spots, marking off their own projects, etc.”

There seems to be no public shame in possessing a stolen traffic cone, marked with a utility or municipal logo. In some neighborhoods, having a boosted traffic cone might be preferable to buying one from Home Depot. Some owners chain their precious traffic cones to posts to protect them from covetous neighbors.

Every year, utilities such as PGW buy battalions of these vinyl guardians of work zones, only to see most of them destroyed or mysteriously departed by the end of the construction season. A local purveyor of traffic cones says that, on average, a cone is deployed fewer than three times before it becomes a casualty or MIA.

The Philadelphia Water Department, which purchases cones by the pallet, bought 8,000 last year at a cost of $14.40 each, replacing its entire inventory, which disappears or is destroyed each year. Peco spent $177,831 on traffic cones last year — it buys up to 15,000 a year and owns about 25,000, said Deena O’Brien, a spokesperson.

Public Service Electric & Gas, New Jersey’s largest utility, spent about a quarter of a million dollars last year on 22,000 traffic cones, said David Blew, manager of outside plant.

“If you add up all the electric utilities, gas utilities, telecommunications companies, state highway departments and county highway departments, there are millions of cones here in the Northeast, I’m sure," said Blew.

PennDot bought 50,798 traffic cones over the last five years at a cost of $643,105.13, according to Alexis Campbell, the agency’s spokesperson. But its purchases have been declining, indicating its retention rate is improving.

“The `borrowed’ cones you see are most likely not `borrowed’ from PennDot,” she said in an email.

An 'iconic invention’

Will Snook, president of the Traffic Safety Store, a West Chester company that claims to be the nation’s biggest online seller of traffic cones, has posted a graphic history of traffic cones on its website: “How the traffic cone became one of America’s most iconic inventions”

It might seem that the traffic cone has been around forever, but somebody actually invented it. A Los Angeles Street Department striper, or line painter, received the first patent for a traffic cone in 1943. Stitched together from pieces of old tires, the “safety marker” was designed to replace rigid barricades, reducing damage to vehicles and risk to highway workers. Later patents perfected the traffic cone, which nowadays is molded from a flexible form of vinyl.

Traffic cones are sold in any number of sizes, colors, and styles, but the highway department standard is a 28-inch high, seven-pound safety-orange cone with two reflective collars. Snook said some buyers, such as auto dealers and restaurants, don’t want orange cones because it makes their parking lot look like a construction site.

A cone sits on top of a car in a lot in Brewerytown earlier this month. Trafficsafetystore.com claims many residents and businesses steal traffic cones to use for themselves, and they put logos on the cones in hopes they won't be stolen as quickly.
MARGO REED / For the Inquirer
A cone sits on top of a car in a lot in Brewerytown earlier this month. Trafficsafetystore.com claims many residents and businesses steal traffic cones to use for themselves, and they put logos on the cones in hopes they won't be stolen as quickly.

For aficionados who become immersed in the world of traffic cones, they are like dead people in the movie The Sixth Sense. “They’re everywhere," Snook whispered.

A curious subculture has developed around traffic cones, and their many unorthodox and irreverent uses.

A Philadelphian posts photos and commentary about forgotten traffic cones on Twitter under the handle @AwarenessCone. Collectors post pictures and videos on various blog sites. Some are used as musical instruments, like vuvuzelas. Artist Dennis Oppenheim made a 16-foot high traffic cone statue in 2007. Pranksters regularly decorate the Wellington Statue in Glasgow, Scotland, with a traffic cone.

Is putting a traffic cone on a monument a thing in Glasgow? (maybe a St. Patrick's Day thing?)

Posted by Marie McCullough on Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Philadelphia contractor in 2015 partly paved over a traffic cone; the incident was spoofed unmercifully on the morning news. Philadelphia police in 2017 launched a social media campaign, #GameOfCones, encouraging residents to stop saving parking spaces. The public was undeterred.

Swiping cones

College students worldwide make a sport of swiping traffic cones. Tom Alberici, a manager for Aqua Pennsylvania, says the water company is often summoned to university dorms at the end of the school year to recover stolen cones (as well as several wayward fire hydrants).

“The college kids love cones for their parties and whatnot," he said. "We’ve seen pictures on Facebook of cones upside down, and guy’s got his mouth on it and they’re pouring beer in it, the whole bit.”

Not all traffic-cone hijackings are treated as high jinks. Police in Plainfield, Conn., this month charged a 45-year-old man with theft after they nabbed him with 13 traffic cones in the back of his pickup, removed from a construction site.

PGW last year created a social media tag, #ConeWatch, to encourage the return of lost cones (about 160 were recovered), and also to alert residents to upcoming street closures. To communicate its message, the city-owned utility created an animated traffic cone named Conan.

It’s impossible to pinpoint a precise number of traffic cones that are stolen. Utilities say they allow their employees to repossess traffic cones, though not if they are being used in a safety function. Current owners do not take kindly to having their cones touched. John DiGiulio, a Water Department spokesman, said he collects them only if he is in an official vehicle so there is no misunderstanding.

Blew, the PSE&G manager, said the company doesn’t worry much about the strays.

“We do a lot of community involvement," he said. "If I was to be out somewhere at a function in a local township, and they have some PSE&G cones, I wouldn’t go over there and say, `Hey, give me those cones back.' They’re out there, they’re doing good work as a cone, and we don’t really police that.”

Plenty of contractors have their company names on their traffic cones — Alberici tells of a paving contractor who screeched to a halt in his Jaguar to recover his traffic cones from a competitor’s job site. But most branded traffic cones appear to circulate freely and are widely accepted, like Canadian nickels in the United States.

For sale: Brand-new cones

Chris Avayou, the director of sales at Traffic Safety Store, has mixed success selling traffic cones at trade shows to contractors. “One customer was very proud — `I just take them from the road.' He had no qualms about stealing cones from wherever he could get them," said Avayou.

Will Snook, owner, and Chris Avayou, vice president of sales, in a warehouse full of traffic cones at the Traffic Safety Store in West Chester earlier this month. Traffic Safety claims to be the largest traffic cone supplier in the nation.
MARGO REED / For the Inquirer
Will Snook, owner, and Chris Avayou, vice president of sales, in a warehouse full of traffic cones at the Traffic Safety Store in West Chester earlier this month. Traffic Safety claims to be the largest traffic cone supplier in the nation.

Snook, 51, the founder of Traffic Safety Store, grew up in Chadds Ford, went to school in Colorado, and became a commercial pilot before shifting into aircraft sales. But the market for corporate aircraft crumbled. So, with a partner, he moved into the emerging world of the internet, selling a more grounded product: parking blocks.

“It was literally how to pay the bills until the corporate aircraft market came back," he said.

Snook said his company, which also operates as TrafficCones.com, sells about a half-million traffic cones and delineators a year. It also sells speed bumps made from recycled rubber, parking blocks made from recycled milk jugs, and plastic barriers and reflective warning signs. Traffic cones accounted for about a quarter of its $25 million in sales last year, he said.

Tim Hannan, the floor manager at the Traffic Safety Store in West Chester, packs a box of cones to be shipped out of the warehouse.
MARGO REED / For the Inquirer
Tim Hannan, the floor manager at the Traffic Safety Store in West Chester, packs a box of cones to be shipped out of the warehouse.

Traffic Safety Store is growing quickly, and has 34 employees and six warehouses nationwide, allowing it to deliver its merchandise quickly to customers who are in a hurry. It also sells single items, individualized with an address or some other lettering, but the shipping cost easily doubles the price of a $20 cone.

During the peak summer season, employees at the 60,000-square-foot facility in West Chester pack two to three UPS tractor-trailers with goods every day.

Make traffic cones great again

Most traffic cones that Snook sells are produced in Taiwan or China, but some government customers need to buy American products to comply with domestic-sourcing rules, so he also carries two lines of U.S. traffic cones.

Overseas producers use an injection-molding technique that is less labor-intensive than the “flow-molding” method favored by domestic producers, which involves coating the cones with layers of molten vinyl. American products are typically much costlier than imports, Snook said.

Traffic cones at the Traffic Safety Store in West Chester, including a sample the company made to sell to the Philadelphia sports teams.
MARGO REED / For the Inquirer
Traffic cones at the Traffic Safety Store in West Chester, including a sample the company made to sell to the Philadelphia sports teams.

Not all customers care to advertise their brands on their traffic cones.

Snook’s crew once created a sample for the Eagles with the team logo on it. But the team buyer knew that thousands of jubilant football fans would be tempted to cap their experience at the Linc by taking home a souvenir Eagles traffic cone. Fly, cones, fly.

“The guy just shook his head and said, `Don’t even think of doing that,'” said Snook.