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Safety at the Wheel

January 31, 1936 — Radio remarks, National Broadcasting Company


On December 8, I spoke over the radio on the subject “The Tragedy of the Highways.” Since then I have received letters from all over the country, from hundreds of persons, urging that action be taken at once to relieve the situation. I wish each and every one of you could read these letters. Some of them are pathetic, for the come from those who have lost loved ones. They are eager to encourage any step which will prevent others suffering the pain and anguish they themselves have experience.”

Since the 1st of December it is conservative to estimate that 5,400 men, women and children have died as the result of automobile fatalities. One hundred lives a day — every day — one life every 15 minutes. Death is still at the wheel. No one expects that legislation will stop this terrible slaughter. We do know, however, that if the State traffic regulations were uniform in their provisions, enforcement would be simplified, those who are physically or mentally unfit to drive would be taken off the highways (in the words of one official, there are to too many  30-horsepower brains driving 90-horsepower motors), headlight glare in night driving would be controlled, street lighting would be improved, wild speed would be reduce, brakes would be tested regularly — and the ultimate result would be a lessening of the number of accidents.

On December 18 last, an accident-prevention conference was called by our humane Secretary of commerce, Daniel C. Roper. It met in Washington and laid out a program dealing chiefly with causes of accidents and suggested remedies for them. Two high points of the conference program appeal particularly to me. One that is the conference is seeking to meet immediate problems with educational material. The other is that of attempting to obtain uniform vehicle regulations throughout the United States. A committee on this work has been set up, with my distinguished and very able colleague, Representative Emmet O’Neal, of Kentucky, as its chairman. Mr. Labert St. Clair, transporation assistant to the Secretary of Commerce, was appointed director of activities of the conference. Today I am talking solely of the motor fatality phase of the problem, and at a lager date I intend to take up the other phases of the matter.

Gradually, America is awakening to the fact that no one is exempt form the dangers of the road. My only surprise is that it has taken so long to formulate a plan and get it started. Over a year has elapsed since my bill was introduced in Congress. This measure calls for a study and research of traffic conditions and measures for their improvement. The bill does not call for the creation of new departments — only existing facilities will be used — the money is available, the organization is there and ready to go ahead as soon as authorization to do so is granted. States rights will not be interfered with by this measure. The sad part of it all is not that just a year has been wasted. During that year more than 36,000 lives have been lost by automobile accidents. That is the terrible part. For some of these lives could have been saved. It appears that the 1935 figures will show an increase over 1934. The 1935 total will probably be very close to 36,400 with a corresponding increase in permanent disabilities and injuries.

In 1934 there were 36,000 automobile fatalities. But there is another side of the picture. In addition to those deaths, you must consider the 105,000 persons who were permanently disabled and tat 31,500,000 temporarily incapacitated. Thing of the mental and physical suffering involved. Aside form this, there is the economic loss, and that is estimated at $1,580,000,000. It is so shocking, so staggering, when one has the figures before him, that it seems as if the country were becoming calloused and human life becoming cheap.

We all shudder at the thought of war. The traffic fatality situation is far worse than any war in the United States has ever fought. Figures were given recently which show that in all the conflicts our country has had, from the Revolutionary War down to and including the late World War, 244, 357 lives were lost. The period of time covered by those wars was approximately 150 years. Compare the traffic fatalities of only 15 years with this, and you find that 389,000 men, women, and children have been killed in or by automobiles. We need neutrality in our highways.

The average person goes on his way confidently, with the feeling he is perfectly safe, but here and there the lightning strikes each day and he is either killed or kills. His whole life picture and that of his family are completely changed. The family never forget his death if he is killed — never forgets the fact he has killed someone. That horror will be with him always — and it is infinitely greater if it be his own fault.

The public authorities have responded in bringing this picture more and more before the public eye. However, when you compare what was done in the way of publicity in depicting the horrors of the World War, when only 38,000 American lives were lost during the entire conflict, the fatalities of last year, which were two thousand less, enough has not been done.

Some of the American indifference ot this crashing, smashing death is vanishing, however. A great deal of fine, intelligent, and valuable research work has ben done. It has been determined that from 12 midnight to 1 o’clock in the morning, the hazard is nine times as great as from 12 o 1 in the middle of the day, in proportion to the amount of travel. Similarly, the average accident hazard between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. is four times as great as that between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

We are gradually getting somewhere with the problem. We are finding out the facts. What we need now is legislation to put this knowledge to use. The manufacturers have become interested and have set up a number of committees which are to deal with important aspects of the traffic problem. They have just announced a large scale cooperative plan of safety work, one of the items providing for 15 fellowships in the Traffic Research Bureau of Harvard University.

State and municipal authorities are increasing their activities; grade-crossing elimination is being carried forward all over the country — 1,500 of these death traps will be made safe in the coming year. Educational programs are being set up, many of them modeled on the Milwaukee plan, which has worked out so successfully. That plan, controlled by a commission, with the very hearty co-operation of the police department, has made Milwaukee the safest city in the United States. It is not a complicated program and much of its success comes from the fact that the commission is made up of 12 men, each of whom is an expert in his own particular field, each realizing just what the situation demands. As a result, the public schools have a course of study embracing all phases of the traffic problem from driver training to law enforcement. The police department works closely with the commission. There is no ticket fixing in Milwaukee.

Safety studies should be a part of the curriculum of all schools. There is a great opportunity for activity of this nature in the organizations of the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and the Campfire Girls. With their eager enthusiasm they can be of wonderful help. It is a tremendous challenge to the youth of America. Arrangements have bene completed for introducing general accident prevention courses in the C.C.C. camps. If these 421,000 young men are taught the principles of safety, and army of most useful safety leaders soon can be established.

With all these agencies at work, anxious as they are for a betterment of the conditions, the one most crying need at the present moment is for uniformity of traffic laws. The demand for this is national. This is borne out by the result of the Nation-wide poll conducted recently by the American Institute of Public Opinions. Last Sunday’s Washington Post printed the figures on this poll. It showed that 95 percent of the voters agree that there must be uniform traffic laws and regulations in all States. In a day or two I am introducing another bill in Congress that takes in a broader scope than m previous one. I am glad to see more persons taking interest daily in the safety problem. It is only through such interest that we can master the situation. Instead of death at the wheel, let us have safety at the wheel.



Source: House Reports, 74th Congress, 2d Session (January 8—June 20, 1936), Public, Vol. 2 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office) 1936, pp. 7-8.