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Address Before the President's Highway Safety Conference.

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government

Address Before the President's Highway Safety Conference.

President Harry S Truman
May 8, 1946


General Fleming, ladies and gentlemen:

You are answering a call of last December to come to Washington from every State, determined to find ways and means of making our streets and highways safer. Your response to the call is most gratifying. The large assemblage here today represents the civic, business, and political leadership of the United States of America.

The forty-eight States and the District of Columbia all are represented by strong delegations, headed in many cases by the Governors. The delegations also include legislators, State and local officials concerned with highway safety, and many outstanding civic leaders active in community and State affairs.

We are honored also by the presence as observers of the ambassadors and other distinguished representatives of nearly two score nations in all parts of the world. It is a great pleasure to welcome them also.

I wish to thank the hundreds of men and women from all parts of the country who have contributed to the preliminary work of this Conference. I am especially grateful to the volunteers who have served on the staff set up by your Chairman, General Fleming; to the chairmen and members of the Conference committees; and to all the men and women who have given so generously of their support and cooperation.

The problem before you is urgent. Since restrictions on highway travel were lifted at the end of the war, traffic accidents have been increasing steadily. With the 1946 automobile touring season still ahead, the toll of death and injury already has reached prewar proportions.

At the present rate, someone in the United States will die and a score will be injured during the few minutes I am speaking to you here today. During the three days of this Conference, more than one hundred will be killed, and thousands injured.

Now when I was in the Senate, I made a study of this problem, and I found at that time that more people had been killed in automobile accidents than had been killed in all the wars we had ever fought, beginning with the French and Indian wars. That is a startling statement.

More people have been injured, permanently, than were injured in both the World Wars--from the United States.

The property damage runs into the billions. Never less than a billion dollars a year--usually more. Now, if those deaths and injuries were paid for on the basis on which injuries are settled when somebody is killed by a railroad, it would pay off half the national debt. lust think of that!

I succeeded in getting a bill through the Congress to require people to have certain qualifications in driving, before they could cross State lines. You know, in some States--my own in particular--you can buy a license to drive a car for twenty-five cents at the corner drug store. It's a revenue raising measure. It isn't used for safety at all. Some States, at the time I made this investigation--I think there were seven or eight, including the District of Columbia-had license requirements which required drivers to know something about running a car--certain safety signals, to know a green light from a red one, to know which hand to put out when he was going to turn right or left.

You know the old story about when a fellow sticks a hand out in a car, he is going to stop, back up, turn right, or turn left. That is about as much as a lot of drivers know about the rules of the road.

This bill of mine, that I introduced in the Senate, passed the Senate twice. The House killed it each time--said they didn't want to take any States' rights away from the States. Of course we don't want to take any States' rights away from the States, but something must be done to keep so many people from being killed and injured, and so much property damage done.

Now, when the States want to collect a little revenue, they would interfere with inter-State rights all right, at the State lines, and make trucks pay extra for coming in; but they take no steps to prevent you or me from being killed by some moron that has no more business at the wheel of a car than he has at the throttle of an engine.

The Nation cannot afford and will not tolerate this tragic waste of human resources.

For the most part, street and highway accidents are produced by carelessness and neglect. They can be sharply curtailed through a concerted effort, mobilized by this Conference and carried forward vigorously under your leadership in all parts of the country.

In the final analysis, such a program will depend for success upon the cooperation of the American people. Safety is fundamentally a private and personal responsibility which each of us must recognize and accept. I am confident that drivers and pedestrians everywhere will respond wholeheartedly to our appeal for safe and sensible conduct.

Government, of course, bears a primary obligation to the public safety. The provision of safe facilities for public travel, the licensing of vehicles and drivers, the regulation of traffic movement, and the education and training in highway safety through our schools, all are responsibilities of local, State, and Federal Government.

Many activities of the Federal Government are directly related to the problem. One of these is the Federal-aid highway program. Federal jurisdiction extends also to the regulation of interstate commercial movement over the highways, and to research and fact-finding services having to do with the use of streets and highways.

Some of the Federal establishments, such as the Post Office Department, are concerned directly with the problem as operators of large numbers of motor vehicles.

Representatives of the Federal agencies having an interest in highway safety will participate with you in this Conference. The program which is formulated will have their full and active cooperation.

But the main share of public responsibility rests with the State and local government agencies. States and cities are responsible for enactment of the laws governing the use of motor vehicles on public thoroughfares, and for the enforcement of those laws. It is squarely up to them to deal with that small group of traffic incorrigibles--and the morons and the crazy people who have no business at car wheels at all--who cause so much trouble to so many. After all, the license to drive on the public highways is a privilege that can be denied if it is abused.

The States and cities are responsible in large part for building the highway facilities; for licensing the vehicles and the drivers; for regulating the movement of traffic; and for determining what safety instruction shall be incorporated in the curricula of our schools.

I can't too strongly emphasize the necessity for control of drivers by States and local governments. It is perfectly absurd that a man or a woman, or a child, can go to a place and buy an automobile and get behind the wheel--whether he has ever been there before makes no difference, or he is insane, or he is a "nut," or a moron doesn't make a particle of difference--all he has to do is just pay the price and get behind the wheel and go out on the street and kill somebody. That is actually what happens.

Now that is the responsibility of State Governments.

The Federal Government could regulate more interstate driving, but they haven't seen fit to do it. It has been impossible to get that regulation through the Congress. But people are literally murdered every day because we can't get that regulation in effect.

Uniformity in rules of the road is essential to safe and pleasant highway travel. Its achievement, under present relationships, also is a joint responsibility of the several State and local governmental jurisdictions.

It is not intended that the Federal Government shall encroach upon the rights and responsibilities of the States. At the same time, we cannot expect the Congress and the Federal Government to stand idly by if the toll of disaster continues to go unchecked. But they have been standing idly by for the last 25 years, and I think they will continue to stand idly by, unless you do something to force the control of this terrible weapon which goes up and down our roads and streets all this time. The challenge must and will be met. I firmly hope and believe that every agency of government, backed by the aroused support of its citizens, will meet its responsibilities fully in this field.

Through the use of modern techniques of enforcement, engineering, and education, many communities and States have achieved notable traffic safety records. Your committees have assembled these techniques for Conference consideration. Out of their studies and reports, you can formulate a uniform and balanced highway safety program.

I urge you to take this program back home with you, and to take whatever steps are needed to see that it is adopted.

I appeal also to every driver and pedestrian for cooperation in making our streets and highways safer. Give this program your earnest and continuous support, individually and through organized effort. In that direction lies the promise of a safer and a happier United States of America.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke in the Departmental Auditorium at 11:20 a.m. His opening words referred to Maj. Gen. Philip B. Fleming, Federal Works Administrator, who served as general chairman of the conference.



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