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Address Opening the President's Second Highway Safety Conference.

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government

Address Opening the President's Second Highway Safety Conference.

President Harry S Truman
June 18, 1947

IT IS a pleasure to welcome you to the second Highway Safety Conference. You are here to grapple with a problem of prime importance to every resident of our Nation. Please accept my hearty personal thanks for your attendance.

Automobiles -- including trucks and buses--traveled nearly 350 billion vehicle miles last year over the streets and highways of the United States. This tremendous volume of travel was the greatest in the history of our country. It exceeded that of 1941, the next highest year, by 4 percent.

In a very real sense, the increase in postwar highway travel is a measure of our return to the happier peacetime pattern of life in America. There is one tragic aspect of that pattern, however, that no one wishes to see restored. I refer to the appalling destruction of life and property through highway accidents.

In 1941, accidents on the streets and highways cost 40,000 lives. In 1946, with travel 4 percent higher, an even greater loss would have been sustained if the prewar death rate had continued.

Fortunately, that did not happen. Beginning in May 1946, the highway fatality rate showed a sharp and gratifying decline. Last year, the rate was 9.8 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles, compared with 12 in 1941. So far this year, the trend has continued definitely downward.

Measured against the black record of 1941, this means that at least 6,500 lives were saved last year. We have won a major victory in the campaign against carelessness. For that result, the major share of the credit must go to the efficient and devoted efforts which were set in motion at the first Highway Safety Conference here in Washington in May 1946.

This reduction in the accident rate offers heartening promise of what eventually can be achieved through the concerted effort of motorists and pedestrians, under the leadership of governmental agencies and with the support of organized groups of public-spirited citizens.

The job has been well started, but it is by no means done.

Last year, 33,500 men, women, and children died as a result of highway accidents, and well over a million were injured. That is a tribute to inefficiency this Nation cannot afford to pay.

If those deaths had occurred at the same time in a single community, the whole world would have been profoundly shocked. Every resource of the United States would have been mobilized immediately to prevent the recurrence of such an awful tragedy.

The challenge is no less urgent because it is less spectacular. We are dealing here with what amounts to a national disaster. The fact that most of the death and destruction could have been prevented only intensifies the tragic character of the problem.

The "Action Program" developed at the Highway Safety Conference of 1946 is a sound and workable program. It can and does get results. Now the task is to get more of that program applied by more of the States and more of the communities. I hope that your deliberations this week will direct principal attention to finding ways and means of achieving that goal.

The reports from the States indicate unusually good progress in the field of safety education, especially in the development of driver training courses by our high schools. More than 2 million young people reach the legal driving age each year in the United States. We certainly have an obligation to see that they receive the most adequate preparation possible for useful citizenship in a motor age.

Unfortunately, the driver license part of the program is not keeping pace. Since the 1946 safety conference, two additional States have enacted driver license laws, which leaves now only one State in the Union without such legislation. But uniformity is still lacking among the States. And in too many jurisdictions, as I have pointed out before, the licensing laws are nothing more than revenues measures and their administration a travesty on public safety.

Moreover, the States report little or no progress during the last year in raising standards of motor vehicle administration.

This situation obviously cannot be permitted to continue indefinitely. A licensing law is a basic weapon in the war on accidents. Properly administered, it eliminates the dangerously unfit and the dangerously irresponsible from our streets and highways. It is vital to the protection of the vast majority of law-abiding motorists and pedestrians.

Last year I said there was no desire on the part of the Federal Government to encroach upon State jurisdictions in this field, but that the Congress would not stand idly by in the face of a grievous national accident toll.

In the regulation of interstate commerce, in research and investigation, and in many other activities the Federal Government has direct concern with the problem of highway safety.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, for example, provides for the development jointly with the States of modern traffic arteries, both rural and urban, which will incorporate maximum safety into their design and construction. Improvements of this kind in the highway plant will make a permanent and substantial contribution to accident prevention.

Since the "Action Program" was formulated last year, vigorous steps have been taken by nearly all the Federal agencies involved to carry it out in their own operations. Especially encouraging are the programs which have been undertaken for the intensive training of drivers.

Many shortcomings, of course, still exist. But I am happy to report that progress is highly satisfactory, and that plans have been made to intensify these activities in the months ahead. They are fully coordinated through a Federal Committee on Highway Safety in which 13 Federal agencies are now participating.

Three national committees were established in accordance with recommendations made by the 1946 conference. These committees suggested to me the desirability of calling this follow-up meeting, and I was most happy to act on their suggestion. The purpose of the meeting is to weigh the strength and the weakness of the current program, and to outline further steps which can be taken to speed the adoption of the "Action Program" by all jurisdictions.

I am confident that your work will be fruitful. I am confident that the American people will respond again, and wholeheartedly, to a renewed appeal from this Conference for greater care and courtesy on the roads and streets.

In opening your deliberations, I join with you this morning in making that appeal.

Note: The President spoke at 11:30 a.m. at the opening meeting of the conference. Maj. Gen. Philip B. Fleming, Federal Works Administrator, presided over the conference as general chairman.

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