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Remarks at the Highway Safety Conference.

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government

Remarks at the Highway Safety Conference.

President Harry S Truman
June 13, 1951

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:

I am most happy to welcome you to this conference. Most of you have set aside your regular duties to work with us to make our highway system safe. That is the spirit of public service that our country needs--and needs badly at this time.

I am glad to know that we have with us a number of distinguished guests who are here as official representatives of other countries. We welcome them most heartily. We hope that they will benefit from this meeting, and we know that we will benefit by having them here with us.

As we meet here today, the United States and the other free nations of the world face a great danger. That fact makes the work of this conference more important than ever.

In these troubled times we are working as hard as we can to make our country stronger. Our purpose is to prevent another world war by building our defenses and by strengthening the free peoples who are allied with us.

This need for a strong America makes your work doubly urgent. Highway accidents strike directly at our national strength. A highway accident does just as much damage to the defense effort, as a deliberate act of sabotage by a hostile agent.

The defense effort depends upon the efficient movement of goods and people over public highways and roadways. Highway transportation, like railway transportation, is indispensable to production on our farms and our factories, and to every phase of the Nation's work. Traffic accidents slow down production and weaken our whole economy. Traffic accidents are a sheer economic waste.

Every year highway accidents cost us nearly $3 billion--$3 billion it costs us in highway accidents! This is the cost of wrecked vehicles, hospital and medical expenses, and time lost from work. This is a terrible price to pay for carelessness and inefficiency.

We are supposed to be the most efficient nation on earth, and also we are supposed to be the most careless. But here we have a combination--of carelessness and inefficiency-as to what causes most highway accidents.

It has been 5 years since I called the first highway safety conference here in Washington. Much has been accomplished since that time. That conference drafted a comprehensive action program. Since then, organizations have been set up in many communities and many States to put that program into effect. However, we still have a long way to go.

When we met in 1946, deaths from traffic accidents were averaging about 11 per 100 million miles of travel. That figure has been cut down to about 7 at the present time; a reduction of more than a third. That is very gratifying, but it is not enough.

Another encouraging sign is the report of the Federal agencies that operate fleets of motor vehicles. In 1949 they had a traffic fatality rate of 7 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel. Last year this had been brought down to 3.5 per 100 million miles. That is a reduction of more than a half.

Many individual States and communities are making good safety records, too, and I congratulate them. Last year the accident rate in some States was less than half as high as it was in others. Among cities the same wide range is found. What we need to do now is to find a way to bring the accident rate in every State and city down to the level of the best record--and even lower. That is possible! Let us do it!

That is a very urgent task. Because the sad fact is that, in spite of the progress we have made in reducing the rate of accidents, the total number of accidents is going up. This is because there has been a tremendous increase in highway travel.

At the time of that 1946 conference there were 30 million vehicles on the road. Today the number is 50 million, an increase of 66 percent. Mileage of travel has skyrocketed in the same proportion.

Our safety efforts, helpful as they have been, have not kept pace with this increase in travel. Last year 35,000 persons were killed, and more than a million were injured in traffic accidents. Tens of thousands of those who were hurt were disabled for life.

We have been attempting to stop an act of aggression in Korea for the last year. The total casualties for the whole operation have been less than 80,000, and that includes everything: sickness, and death in jeeps by accidents, killed on the front, captured on the front, and wounded. It has been less than 80,000, and that means every kind of death and injury that could take place in that operation. That is on the mind and tongue of every citizen. But right here at home we kill and permanently injure a million and 35,000 people, and there is no outcry by the sabotage press, no misstatement by the columnists or the congressional demagogues. And I wonder why? I wonder why? Now, that is an opportunity for every one of those fellows to pick on the administration, and they ought to make use of it.

These 35,000 deaths in 1950 represented an 11 percent increase over 1949. Unless the upward trend is reversed--and soon reversed--this year will set another tragic record.

We must prevent this from happening. We must not have a traffic death record. This is a challenge to every State, and to every community, and to the Federal Government.

It is a challenge to us, first, to improve our highway system.

For nearly 20 years, highway improvement programs have lagged far behind our needs. This has been because of the depression and war, and also because of the tremendous increase in the number of vehicles. Much of our main road mileage is worn out and obsolete, and the replacement program has not kept pace with the increased use.

Since World War II the program has been expanded, but now there are new difficulties arising, particularly in the matter of construction materials.

Some highway projects may have to be deferred. But good roads are essential, and we must not make the mistake of thinking that highways are expendable in an emergency period.

In reducing the accident rate, safe roads by themselves are not enough, we must have safe drivers. And that is the most important thing in the whole safety drive campaign, to have safe drivers.

One of the best things we can do to produce safe drivers is the training of our high school boys and girls. One third of the eligible boys and girls now receive some kind of instruction in safe driving. About half of these are getting training behind the wheel. These youngsters with driver training have only half as many accidents as those who have not had such training. These excellent records promise a great deal for the future. Every boy and girl in high school deserves the opportunity to get that training.

To do our task, we must have the continuous and intelligent support of the American people.

Each citizen has a personal responsibility to support the highway safety program, and what is more important, to be a good driver himself.

This will take self-discipline, but it can be done. It's a simple matter of good citizenship.

Perhaps we can understand the scope of our problem better if we remember that sometime in this year 1951, the number of traffic deaths since 1900 will pass the million mark. One million men, women, and children have been killed on our streets and highways since the turn of the century-since the turn of the century.

Nearly as many Americans have been killed in automobile accidents as have been killed in all the wars of our history, beginning 175 years ago with the War for Independence.

Those who have died in the service of their country rest in honored glory. They gave their lives for the purposes to which this Nation is dedicated. But there is no noble purpose in death by traffic accidents. The slaughter going on every day on our roads and streets is unnecessary and inexcusable.

I hope that during this Conference you will renew your determination to reduce this slaughter, and that you will go home and get others to join you in vigorous support of the highway safety program.

If you do, and if your fellow Americans everywhere join you, thousands upon thousands of lives will be spared in future years. You will perform a great service for your country, and much suffering and sorrow will be avoided.

Now, I want to say something in particular about the permanent chairman of this conference. Unfortunately, General Fleming cannot be with us today, but Mrs. Fleming is here in his place.

A little more than 5 years ago, on May 7, 1946, General Philip Fleming was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal for "outstanding service to the Government." He had successfully directed a tremendous construction program during the war. This included a wide variety of buildings and facilities for the Army and Navy, in the United States, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Alaska, and Central America. I know what I'm talking about with respect to this medal, for I gave it to the general myself.

Since that date General Fleming has rendered equally distinguished service in several high Government posts. And as general chairman of the President's Highway Safety Conference during its entire existence, he has worked unsparingly to build and strengthen the highway safety movement.

These nationwide conferences, like the one which we are having now, and the ones which have preceded it, bear the lasting imprint of General Fleming's personality--his capacity for wise and friendly leadership in a great humanitarian cause.

It is eminently fitting that we should recognize this unique service here today. For that purpose, I have something here to present to the general, a gift from the Highway Safety Conference, and I am going to ask Mrs. Fleming to receive it for him.

Let me read the inscription: "Philip Bracken Fleming. In appreciation of his immeasurable service, and unfailing guidance in the cause of highway safety"--the President's Highway Safety Conference presents this. And I present it for the conference in the name of the President of the United States.

It gives me great pleasure, Mrs. Fleming, to make the award for the conference, and I hope the general will soon be fully recovered and working in the public service, as he has always worked ever since I have known him.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11 a.m. at Constitution Hall in Washington. The President's Highway Safety Conference was held during the period June 13-15, 1951.

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