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Remarks to the White House Conference on Highway Safety.

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government

Remarks to the White House Conference on Highway Safety.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower
February 17, 1954


Mr. Secretary, ladies and gentlemen:

A privilege accorded me is that of coming to this meeting in order to extend to each of you a cordial welcome on behalf of the Government of the United States.

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.

We have great organizations working effectively and supported by the Government, to seek ways and means of promoting peace in the world in order that these great tragedies may be prevented--or at least minimized in the future. But we live every day with this problem that costs us so many lives, and not only lives but grief and suffering in the families from which those victims came--to say nothing of the disablement that so many other citizens must bear all through their lives either through their own or someone else's carelessness.

It is one of those problems which by its nature has no easy solution. No one can come along and say that we must have more policemen or more traffic lights or just more roads. It is a problem that is many-sided, and therefore every citizen can contribute something to it if nothing else but his own sense of responsibility when he is .driving his car or crossing the street or taking care of his children. But I must say that in each community I do believe that much would be done if the efforts of all of those to whom we give legal responsibility in this affair would have the organized support of all of us. 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. I do want to refer, though, for one moment to this one factor: public opinion.

In a democracy, public opinion is everything. It is the force that brings about progress; it is the force that brings about enforcement of the laws; it is the force that keeps the United States in being, and it runs in all its parts.

So, if we can mobilize a sufficient public opinion, this problem, like all of those to which free men fall heir can be solved. That public opinion is not a thing of passing moment, not a thing to be won to our side all in one day. It is earnest, long, dedicated leadership on the part of everybody who understands the problem, and then having once been formed, it takes the same kind of leadership to maintain and sustain it, so that this problem will not return to us in .exaggerated form. And that fear, I believe, is a very real one.

The same list of statistics that I saw said that in 1975--I don't know why I should be bothered about that year, except I have grandchildren-there are going to be 80 million automobiles on our streets and roads and highways.

Now, the Federal Government is going to do its part in helping to build more highways and many other facilities to take care of those cars. But 80 million cars on our highways! I wonder how people will get to highway conferences to consider the control of highway traffic. It is going to be a job.

But that figure does mean this: we don't want to try to stop that many automobiles coming--I am sure Mr. Curtice doesn't, anyway--we want them. They mean progress for our country. They mean greater convenience for a greater number of people, greater happiness, and greater standards of living. But we have got to learn to control the things that we must use ourselves, and not let them be a threat to our lives and to our loved ones.

And so I say all of this comes back to the mobilization of public opinion. This kind of meeting does something in the mobilizing of that opinion. When you go back to your communities, each of you will have an opportunity that is probably as direct and immediate and personal a one as you could probably have in this whole Government of ours. So while I thank you for being here, for doing your part in this kind of job, in this kind of meeting, I also congratulate you on the opportunity that is opening up to each of you in your own communities.

And now again, thank you for the privilege of coming here and meeting you, and saying that I think you are engaged in something--I know you are engaged in something that is not only to the welfare of every citizen of the United States, but I believe that they realize it.

Thank you very much.

Note: The White House Conference on Highway Safety was called by the President through a letter to the State Governors released December 14, 1953- Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks served as General Chairman of the Conference. Harlow H. Curtice, to whom the President referred toward the end of his remarks, was Chairman of the group representing business. Later he became Chairman of the President's Committee for Traffic Safety.

The President spoke at the Departmental Auditorium.



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