Dwight Eisenhower: Inspirational Crusader for Traffic Safety; Would that he could speak to us today.

I was suitably impressed as I sat on my Amtrak train en route to Washington, D.C., last week and read the words which President Dwight Eisenhower wrote and spoke about traffic safety:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Federal Role in Highway Safety Chapter 2: A Crusade for Safety

I knew that he was responsible for our improved interstate system, but I did not know that he was such a genuinely enthusiastic crusader for traffic safety. Here are a few excerpts among many:

Although President Eisenhower would not become fully engaged in a highway initiative until the Grand Plan speech in 1954, he acted on highway safety in July 1953 when he met in the Cabinet Room of the White House with 28 business leaders. He told the leaders that his goal was to save 17,000 lives and $1.25 billion a year by reducing accidents. According to an account in Transport Topics for August 3, 1953:

 

President Eisenhower told the group . . . he is tired of having three to four times as many persons killed a year on the highways as were killed in Korea. He said the history of efforts to save lives on the highway shows that when something is done on a coordinated basis the accident trend drops sharply.

The president said that something-a truce-had been done about saving lives in Korea and that there is good reason why something should be done about highway accidents. . .

On December 11, 1953, the President wrote to the Nation’s Governors to request their help:

Dear Governor:

The mounting toll of death and injury on our highways long ago reached a point of deep concern to all of us. It stands before America as a great challenge-humanitarian and economic-and must be met by urgent action.

I have examined the “Action Program for Highway Safety” which you and the other Governors have developed in cooperation with interested organizations and public officials having jurisdiction over highway safety. It is a sound and workable program, but effective citizen leadership is needed to help you put this great crusade into organized action on a scale far bigger than ever before.

Accordingly, I have called a Conference on Highway Safety for Washington next February seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth. The Conference will serve to focus more public attention on the problem and stimulate active leadership in every community. . .

After noting the privilege of addressing the [White House Conference on Highway Safety], he began:

The purpose of your meeting is one that is essentially local or community in character. But when any particular activity in the United States takes 38,000 American lives in one year, it becomes a national problem of the first importance. Consequently, this meeting was called, and you have accepted the invitation, in an understanding between us that it is not merely a local or community problem. It is a problem for all of us, from the highest echelon of Government to the lowest echelon: a problem for every citizen, no matter what his station or his duty.

I was struck by a statistic that seemed to me shocking. In the last 50 years, the automobile has killed more people in the United States than we have had fatalities in all our wars: on all the battlefields of all the wars of the United States since its founding 177 years ago
He acknowledged that this was a problem that “by its nature has no easy solution.” He did not intend to get into the technicalities of this “many-sided” problem. However, he felt that the key was public opinion. “In a democracy, public opinion is everything.” He explained:

If there were community groups established that could command the respect and the support of every single citizen of that city or that community, so that the traffic policeman, so that everyone else that has a responsibility in this regard, will know that public opinion is behind him. Because I have now arrived at the only point that I think it worthwhile to try to express to you, because in all the technicalities of this thing you know much more than I do.

If, he said, “we can mobilize a sufficient public opinion, this problem, like all of those to which free men fall heir can be solved.”

Hmmm. . . sounds sort of like a National Vision Zero Goal and a Nationwide Network of Community Traffic Safety Action Groups. . .

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