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Address to the President's Conference on Highway Safety.

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government

Address to the President's Conference on Highway Safety.

President Harry S Truman
June 2, 1949

General Fleming, ladies and gentlemen of the Highway Safety Conference:

When we first met here in Washington 3 years ago, I joined with you in making an appeal to all motorists and pedestrians for safer and more sensible conduct.

At that time, wartime restrictions on driving had just been lifted, and highway accidents were increasing very rapidly. To meet that challenge, this conference worked out a practical and comprehensive action program for highway safety, and urged all States and communities to adopt it.

The results have been encouraging. A substantial number of States and communities have adopted the highway safety program worked out by this conference. Between 1946 and 1948 the number of vehicles on the streets and highways of America and the number of miles they traveled increased about 20 percent. Yet the number of traffic fatalities declined.

If nothing had been done to improve highway safety conditions on the highways, and the death rate had remained the same as it was in 1946, we would have had nearly 25 percent more deaths and accidents in 1948 than actually did occur.

We have saved, through our safety programs, almost 11,000 lives and have prevented injury to nearly 400,000 persons; and I think that has made this conference worth while.

Nevertheless, the frightful slaughter on our streets and highways continues. Last year 32,000 people were killed in traffic accidents and more than 1 million were injured. To put it another way, more than twice as many Americans were killed last year on the streets and highways of this country as were killed in all the American Forces during 6 weeks of the Normandy campaign in 1944. You know, no nation can afford this needless peacetime waste of the lives of its citizens in traffic accidents.

The problem of safety becomes more serious as the volume of vehicle traffic increases. There is every indication that we will have more miles of travel and resulting casualties on the road this year than we have ever had. The program of highway safety must be expanded and intensified.

You know, over the weekend, Decoration Day, some 429 people lost their lives. More than half that number were killed in traffic accidents.

Now, if a town had been wiped out by a tornado or a flood or a fire and killed 429 people, there would be a great hullabaloo about it. We would turn out the Red Cross, and we would have the General declare an emergency, and I don't know what-all. Yet, when we kill them on the road, or unnecessarily drown them, in accidents that shouldn't happen, we just take it for granted. We mustn't do that.

I hope that your deliberations this week will produce new and useful methods for getting that program applied more widely.

The annual inventory of traffic safety activities is a useful yardstick and factual guide by which a community or State, or the country as a whole, can measure progress, and find out the specific measures necessary to make its program more effective.

For the country as a whole, the current inventory shows many promising gains-and some disappointments.

I am particularly disappointed at the failure of many States to establish driver licensing systems worthy of the name. In too many cases the laws are pitifully weak, and the procedures for driver examinations are scandalous.

I am sorry to relate that my great State of Missouri is still in that column. Terrible! Why, a man can go down to a drugstore from an insane asylum and spend a quarter and get a license to drive on any road in that State, if he wants to.

Here in the District, not long ago, whose driving laws are very strict, they found four men who couldn't see an inch in front of their noses, with driving licenses issued by one of these 25 States that don't take care of their populations.

State and local governments have a duty to deny the privilege of using public highways to the irresponsible, the unfit, and the chronic law violators. The American people stand ready at all times to support and cooperate with sensible regulations, capably administered, which are essential to the protection of life and property.

The national inventory also shows a deficiency in the collection and use of accident reports. Many laws are not adequate and administration is below standard in some instances. The proper use of accident facts is fundamental to the entire highway safety program, and I hope the Conference will give this matter its attention.

Gratifying progress is reported in other segments of the program.

Especially heartening is the fact that a growing number of our high schools now offer driver education and training courses to their teenage students. Trained boys and girls have traffic records twice as good as those who do not have the benefit of such courses.

It takes years and years, you know, for a man to drive a steam engine down the tracks which it can't get off, yet we let anybody get a driving license for an automobile whether he knows front from back or right from left.

Highway construction has gained momentum during the last 18 months, after considerable delay due to shortages of materials and other factors. The modern features which are being incorporated into new and reconstructed arteries of travel will go far toward eliminating head-on collisions and some of the other more severe types of accidents.

Notable gains are reported also in the improvement of traffic court administration, in the supervision of traffic by enforcement agencies, and in the enactment of uniform motor vehicle laws and ordinances.

Newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts are giving more constructive attention to highway safety than ever before. A thorough public understanding of the problem is essential, and these agencies are giving splendid assistance.

All in all, this conference can review a record of solid accomplishment. At the same time, you face clearly defined needs for more intensive work.

I am confident that you will succeed. The highway safety movement stands today as a practical demonstration of our capacity for teamwork.

Government, business and industry, labor, farm groups, veterans, housewives, civil, religious, and professional organizations--all are working together in a common cause.

In hundreds of communities across the land, citizens individually and in organized groups have dedicated themselves to the objectives of this program, and have joined with their public officials in a concerted effort to achieve those objectives.

We are privileged to have with us this week, as observers, distinguished representatives of many other countries. I welcome them most cordially to this conference. Like many other problems, highway safety is a matter of worldwide concern, and all nations can benefit from the exchange of information and ideas.

This entire program has been developed and set in motion by voluntary teamwork. And the spirit which makes it possible is the spirit of a free people and the guarantee of our system of democracy.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:45 p.m. at Constitution Hall in Washington. His opening words referred to Maj. Gen. Philip B. Fleming, general chairman of the President's Conference on Highway Safety. The Conference was held in Washington on June 1, 2, and 3.

For the President's letter to the Governors of the States convening the Conference, see Item 26.

For the meeting held "3 years ago" see 1946 volume, this series, Item 106.

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