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There’s a factoid I once saw…  Before I go too far, though, perhaps I should explain ‘factoids’ for the younger crowd.  In the days before computer technology and publishing software made it possible to fit content ever so perfectly into whatever space is available, newspaper and magazine layout people frequently found themselves with awkward little blank spaces scattered here and there throughout their publications.  To fill those voids, a whole industry developed trafficking in short little blocks of text of varying lengths that could be inserted to fill those voids -- poetry, old sayings, household tips, but foremost among them 'factoids', short little snippets of knowledge.  I always enjoyed factoids, learned more than a little from them, and miss them now that they’re gone -- although one had to be careful, because factoids, despite the name, could not always be counted on to actually be – you know – factual.  Urban legends and apocryphal stories had a way of worming their way in, and such was almost certainly the case with the one I saw forty or so years ago.  I have not since found anything remotely approaching validation of that little tidbit which said something to the effect that, “In 1901 there were only two automobiles in the state of Ohio and they collided with each other.”

However, regardless of whether two lone cars in Ohio actually collided with each other in 1901 or not, it is undeniable that not long after the automobile “craze” took hold, cars did begin colliding with each other, and anything else that got in the way, much to the detriment of drivers, riders, and pedestrians.

It did not take long for the proliferation of automobiles to produce truly appalling results.  The early vehicles were crude contraptions, often experimental or even makeshift.  At one time, hundreds of companies populated the industry landscape, from large concerns like Ford and Oldsmobile to shade tree operations cranking out a couple of cars a year.  Quality could be suspect and safety was not the first priority.  Or the second, or the third…

Additionally, during the first wave of industry expansion, no one knew how to drive the things, and there were initially no schools or training courses for would-be drivers.  Usually, the proud owner of the newly-purchased auto hopped behind the wheel for a few-minute crash course (perhaps literally) under the tutelage of the salesman who had just sold him the vehicle, and then he (or she) was turned loose on the streets.  In some rural areas, the new car, purchased sight-unseen from a catalog at a broker’s office, or even by mail, arrived by rail in crates to be assembled by the buyer, who then got to figure out how to operate it from a manual.  A local history, for instance, relates that one of my great-great grandfathers had the fifth car in our little town, but could never get the hang of driving the tiller-steered contraption, and ultimately parked it away in his barn.

It was not a situation conducive to good outcomes.

As the fallout of growing automobile usage became apparent, some states began to take measures to insure that the vehicles provided a modicum of safety, that drivers were minimally competent to drive them, and that speeds were restricted, roads marked, traffic control signs erected, and rules established to govern conduct on the roads.  However, as with any facet of public safety that has ever been left in the purview of the states, the response varied widely.  As Harry S. Truman would later note, in his own state of Missouri,

…you can buy a license to drive a car for twenty-five cents at the corner drug store. It's a revenue-raising measure. It isn't used for safety at all.
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum: Address Before the President's Highway Safety Conference
The death toll on the nation’s roads climbed throughout the first four decades of the 20th century.  By the start of the fifth decade, just shy of 40,000 Americans died as a result of automobile accidents in 1941.

Then came the war, and accidents declined dramatically as the rationing of gasoline, rubber, and other necessary components sharply curtailed automobile usage.  Still, 23,823 died in auto accidents in 1943 and 24,300 in 1944.  With the end of the war in 1945 and the return of some degree of normalcy to the country, the number of fatalities again began to increase.  With the death toll leaping (it would hit 33,500 in 1946), Harry Truman, elevated to the presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April, 1945, decided it was time for the federal government to step in.

On December 18, 1945, President Truman wrote to Major General Philip B. Fleming, Administrator of the Federal Works Agency (which included the Public Roads Administration (PRA)), to express concern about "the extent of traffic accidents on the Nation's streets and highways which have increased alarmingly since the end of gasoline rationing." The loss of lives, bodily injuries, and property destruction were "a drain upon the nation's resources which we cannot possibly allow to continue." The President said:
It is my intention to call into conference at the White House next spring representatives of the States and municipalities who have legal responsibility in matters of highway traffic, together with representatives of the several national organizations which have a primary interest in traffic safety. I hope that additional means may be devised by such a conference to make our streets and highways safer for motorists and for the public before the beginning of the automobile touring season of 1946.
Federal Highway Administration: Highway History - President Harry S. Truman's Highway Safety Conferences
President Harry S. Truman
Truman’s interest in highway safety was not a new-found cause.  As a senator in the pre-war years he had delved into the issue, finding that only seven or eight states had any kind of license standards that required a prospective driver to demonstrate knowledge of how to operate a vehicle, nor knowledge of road signs, hand signals, or motor vehicle laws.  He had attempted at the time to push through legislation to establish some uniform minimum standards for driver qualifications, but the bill had run afoul of a staunch states’ rights contingent in the House.

The conference, with 2,000 attendees selected from federal, state, and local officials, highway transportation and traffic experts, and leaders of national organizations, convened on May 8, 1946.  Truman himself addressed the conference on the opening day:

The problem before you is urgent. Since restrictions on highway travel were lifted at the end of the war, traffic accidents have been increasing steadily. With the 1946 automobile touring season still ahead, the toll of death and injury already has reached prewar proportions.

At the present rate, someone in the United States will die and a score will be injured during the few minutes I am speaking to you here today. During the three days of this Conference, more than one hundred will be killed, and thousands injured.
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum: Address Before the President's Highway Safety Conference

Public Safety magazine noted that President Truman set aside his prepared remarks to inveigh against the dismaying level of the traffic laws in many states.
It is perfectly absurd that a man or a woman or a child, can go to a place and buy an automobile and get behind the wheel-whether he has ever been there before makes no difference, or if he is insane, or he is a "nut," or a moron doesn't make a particle of difference-all he has to do is just pay the price and get behind the wheel and go out on the street and kill somebody.

And that is actually what happens.
President Harry S. Truman's Highway Safety Conferences

Poor highway design, such as rigid guardrails,
led to many deaths
The experts brought together by the conference hammered out a series of proposals that were compiled into the key product of the conference, the Highway Safety Action Program (link is to a 1962 revision):.
One result of the conference was an Action Program to combat highway deaths and injuries. It addressed collection and analysis of accident records, adoption of a Uniform Vehicle Code and Model Traffic Ordinances to cut confusion over road rules, education in the schools, increased enforcement of traffic laws, improved highway design to eliminate hazards, adoption of sound driver and motor vehicle licensing requirements, and an aggressive public information campaign.

Another result was Executive Order 9775, which President Truman signed on September 3, 1946. The Executive Order established the Federal Committee on Highway Safety, as recommended by the President's Safety Conference. The Federal Committee included representatives of 13 Federal Agencies.
The purpose of the Federal Committee was:

The Committee shall promote highway safety and the reduction of highway traffic accidents and, to this end, shall encourage Federal agencies concerned with highway safety activities to cooperate with agencies of State and local governments similarly concerned, with nationwide highway safety organizations of State and local officials, and with national non-official highway safety organizations, as the Committee may determine. The Committee shall also, to the extent permitted by law, coordinate the highway safety activities of Federal agencies.
The Executive Order also asked the head of each of the Federal Agencies to take "such measures within his sphere of responsibility as will result in improved highway safety conditions; to cooperate with the Committee with a view toward attainment of improved highway safety conditions; and, consonant with law, to provide the Committee with necessary staff assistance."
President Harry S. Truman's Highway Safety Conferences

The 1946 conference was intended to be only the beginning of a concerted effort to improve conditions on the nation's roads.  Yet, even as the committees set up by the conference embarked on studies and issued findings and recommendations, implementation lagged at the state level.  A year after the landmark conference, a second Highway Safety Conference convened to review progress and plan further action.  While noting a gratifying decline in the fatality rate from 12 per 100 million vehicle miles in 1941 to 9.2 in 1946, saving an estimated 6500 lives, the increase in miles driven kept the total number of fatalities at a disturbing 33,600.  While additional states had instituted driver' licensing laws, leaving only one with no licensing requirements whatsoever, over half did not require any testing to obtain one.  The lack of uniformity meant that even states that implemented strict laws to assure the competence of citizens granted licenses to drive were victimized by incompetent and unqualified drivers entering from other states with substandard licensing requirements.

The conference lamented that a program pre-dating the first conference, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, languished with few results to show.  The act creating the program, seeking to partner with states to establish a 40,000 mile network of highways nationwide that would incorporate the latest in modern safety design, had failed to establish dedicated funding for the project, and the idea was destined to see little progress for another decade.

Although a number of the principals met in 1948 to study progress, no formal conference was held again until 1949.  At the 1949 conference, the President again addressed the attendees:

The President told them that results since the 1946 conference were encouraging, as "a substantial number of States and communities" had adopted the safety program. He estimated that as a result, 11,000 lives had been saved, and injuries to 400,000 people had been prevented. "Nevertheless," he said, "the frightful slaughter on our streets and highways continues." In 1948, the total of 32,000 people killed in highway accidents was more than twice as many as were killed "in all the American Forces during 6 weeks of the Normandy campaign in 1944," referring to the D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944, that marked the Allied initiative to end World War II.

He pointed out that 429 people lost their lives during the Decoration Day weekend (the original name, dating to 1868, of Memorial Day), half of them 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.
He was disappointed that some States had failed to establish driver licensing systems "worthy of the name." He said:
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.
President Harry S. Truman's Highway Safety Conferences
The conferees revisited the Action Program and issued an update, its points summarized in a later press release as follows;
  1. Adoption of the Uniform Vehicle Code and the Model Traffic Ordinance in the interest of uniformity in traffic laws and regulations.
  2. More effective collection and analysis of traffic-accident reports and use of these reports in guiding highway-safety activities.
  3. The continuance in all American schools of traffic-safety programs to give guidance in accident prevention.
  4. The operation of continuing traffic-law-enforcement programs in cities and states that will stimulate maximum voluntary observance of regulations by creating adequate deterrence to violators.
  5. Use of engineering principles and techniques to eliminate or reduce physical hazards and to promote the safe control of traffic movements.
  6. Adoption by the States of sound policies and procedures in the field of motor-vehicle administration, with special attention to driver licensing and vehicle inspection.
  7. Continuance by all public information media to spread the word about highway safety-and the lack of it-to the public.

President Harry S. Truman's Highway Safety Conferences
A meeting of the Committee on Conference Reports, rather than a full conference was held in 1950.  The next full conference was held June, 1951.  In 1952, President Truman, having chosen not to run for re-election, and dealing with the conflict on the Korean peninsula, did not attend the final conference.  The legacy left by the President's Conferences on Highway Safety was a decidedly mixed bag.
Since President Truman had launched his highway safety initiative in 1946, the fatality rate had declined from 9.7 fatalities per 100 million miles of travel to 7.3 in 1952. However, the number of fatalities was growing. Post-war deaths declined to a low of 31,701 in 1949, before beginning to climb in 1950 (35,000 deaths), 1951 (37,300 deaths), and 1952 (38,000).

In January 1953, President Harry S. Truman returned to private life in Missouri. According to Public Safety, "The traffic death toll for January was 2,840-a 7 per cent increase over the 2,650 deaths in January last year." With a new President coming into office, the BPR's annual report for 1952 stated that the committees of the President's Highway Safety Conference were preparing for "a tremendous step-up in the entire safety program."

Much work remained for the new President.
President Harry S. Truman's Highway Safety Conferences

Twenty years after Truman's safety conferences, as the highway death toll continued climbing, its peak only a half dozen years away, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote

A national traffic safety master plan most motorists never heard of might save your life some day, if your state is making the most of it.

But chances are it is not being put to work fully.

The Highway Safety Action Program was developed 20 years ago at the request of President Truman...

...The plan calls for a balanced program os many proven traffic safety measures, including uniform laws, periodic motor vehicle inspections, adequate law enforcement, high school driver eductioan for all eligible students, reasonably strict driver licensing, and other action.

"Its principles are the only realistic hope for accident prevention," believes M.R. Darlington, Jr., managing director of Auto Industries Highway Safety Committee.

"Unless the Action Program is applied fully in states, counties and communities, it will be virtually impossible to curb the annual toll of traffic accidents in the long run," he declared.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette"Heard Of It? Safety Plan Held Boon To Drivers", Jan. 12, 1966

The outcome of Truman’s highway safety conferences was long on bully pulpit and short on effective carrots and sticks.  It would have benefited from a different kind of bullying.  In the near term, the effects were less than impressive, as a lack of uniformity resulted in variable outcomes depending on the inclination of the state involved.  Some states adopted significant portions of the action program that came out of the conference -- and would be revised periodically over the years, long past the end of Truman's presidency -- while for years others went on about their business unaffected by the commissions’ proposals, and drivers of the states ignoring the blueprint, drug store licenses in hand, still passed freely across the borders and into the states that did adopt stricter measures.

While the conferences fell far short of Truman’s intended goals, they did set in motion a drive toward stricter laws and more stringent licensing practices at the state level.  And soon, federal programs under future presidents such as Eisenhower’s interstate highway system and the funding carrot they provided (as well as the no-funding stick) helped force laggard states to get on board.

Over the coming decades the number of Americans killed on the country’s roads climbed steadily.  By the early 1970s it reached nearly 55,000 before being brought down by the OPEC oil embargo and the reduced driving and subsequent fuel-conservation measures enacted in response to the suddenly-high gas prices (especially the 55-mph speed limit imposed by the Nixon administration in 1974).

I have a memory from that time, one of those things seared into the consciousness that will likely only be erased by old-age dementia.  I was a young man, recently graduated, married and just starting out in adult life.  Mrs. d and I were on our way to her parents’ house one Christmas morning when we came across the scene of an accident.  A station wagon, at least enough of one to be recognizable -- I remember it as one of those faux-wood-sided cruisers that were popular at the time, though that may be a little neural embellishment -- lay on its roof in the brown grass of the frozen-but-snowless ditch along old U.S. 66.  Strewn behind it like the contrail of a jet plane was a procession of colorfully-wrapped packages, their bows disheveled and corners crushed and crumpled.  The bodies, if there were bodies, had long-since been removed and only a handful of emergency vehicles remained at the scene – a couple of state troopers standing watching as a wrecker maneuvered into position to try to right the vehicle.  On the highways of the early 1970s, it was not an isolated incident.

Although the number of fatalities rose steadily through
the early 1970s, the fatality rate consistently declined
Yet behind the numbers, there was a little-publicized trend taking place.  As the death toll had mounted, so had the miles driven.  Outside dense urban areas, the single-car family of Truman’s day gave way, seemingly, to a car for every family member.  The sprawling suburbs and exurbs spawned daily commutes of previously unimaginable distances.  Although the raw count of the death toll was climbing to alarming numbers, the death rate based on miles driven was steadily declining.
Traffic fatalities per year peaked in the early 1970s,
and then began a general decline.
And, after a brief bout of backsliding in the late 1970s when the oil crisis eased, and again in the 1980s when the 55 mph speed limit was repealed, the raw numbers themselves began to decline, and continued to generally decline for the next three decades.  In 2011, 32,367 people died in traffic accidents in the United States, fewer than when Truman initiated his first highway safety conference.  If these trends continue, experts predict that within a few years the number of people killed in automobile accidents will slip below the number killed by guns.  

When the traffic death toll rose to  high levels, no one seriously proposed banning automobiles, just as no one is seriously proposing banning guns today.  But what we did do was implement sensible regulation.  We barred inappropriate vehicles from the roads: you can't drive a rail dragster down Main Street; a NASCAR driver can't just drive his stock car home from the track after the race; you can't use a Caterpillar D-9 as your personal vehicle.  We required every vehicle driven on the streets to be registered and licensed, and records maintained in databases where authorities can immediately determine from the license number who owns the vehicle and where they live.  We insisted on licensing every driver, and requiring them to pass a test to prove their knowledge of traffic laws and their competence to operate a vehicle on the streets.  When drivers engage in reckless and irresponsible behavior that threatens public safety on the streets, we revoke their licenses and rescind their right to drive a vehicle on public roads, sometimes permanently.  We implemented legislation and required equipment to make cars and trucks themselves safer, and even make the roads they travel on safer.  We invested in studies and investigations of traffic accidents and fatalities, collected and analyzed data, and educated the public on safe driving habits and equipment usage.  And we saved lives.  Lots of lives.  Contrary to the assertions of the right, this stuff works.

And that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from -- not from bored bureaucrats sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit.  They bring suffering on those who trust them and their products, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again.  We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along.  That's how regulation came to be.

You can submit online public comments on proposed rules and regulations at
(h/t  to stusviews)

Previous installments of How Regulation came to be:

1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
The Iroquois Theater Fire
Radium Girls - Part I
Radium Girls - Part II
Radium Girls - Part III
Construction Summer
Red Moon Rising
The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part I
The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part II
Ground Fault, Interrupted
The Cocoanut Grove
DK GreenRoots: Donora
Confined Spaces
The Hotel Fires of 1946 - Part I
The Hotel Fires of 1946 - Part II
Our Lady of the Angels
The Great Molasses Flood
Toy Safety
The Power of One: Frances Oldham Kelsey
Santa Barbara
The Scofield Mine Explosion
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (reposted 24 March 2011)
The Cincinnati Who concert tragedy
The Flexner Report
The Eastland Disaster
El Cortito -- the short hoe
The Buffalo Creek Act of God (Reposted 26 Feb 2012)
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Filling it up with Ethyl
The Memphis Yellow Fever Epidemic - Part I
The Memphis Yellow Fever Epidemic - Part II
The Tylenol Killings
The Hartford Circus Fire
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

Originally posted to dsteffen on Sun Feb 17, 2013 at 02:24 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Headwaters, and Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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