1924: A First-of-a-Kind Highway Safety Conference Takes Place in Washington, D.C.

December 15, 1924

The first national initiative to address the widespread and steadily increasing fatalities and injuries caused by traffic accidents was launched in Washington, D.C. This initiative was a two-day conference. More than 900 representatives of municipal and state police departments, automobile organizations, other stakeholders in the motor-vehicle industry, educational groups, and civic associations convened in Washington for that National Conference on Street and Highway Safety. This conference was specifically held in the newly built U.S. Chamber of Commerce building, which still stands today at 1615 H Street, N.W., in the nation’s capital.

U.S. Commerce Secretary (and future president) Herbert Hoover opened the conference on December 15 with an address to the attendees. Hoover declared, “We must find constructive measures to meet the crisis of tens of thousands of deaths annually, with hundreds of thousands of serious personal injuries, and millions of property damage, accompanied by an economic loss of some staggering sum, such as $600,000,000 yearly.” 

That first day also consisted of various sessions on traffic safety, with the speakers including H.W. Baker of the New York State Automobile Association; and Chicago Chief of Police Morgan A. Collins. During the course of the entire conference, various other attendees likewise discussed and assessed wide-ranging solutions to reduce crashes and save more lives on the nation’s highways.

One of the more offbeat proposals in this regard involved the installation of giant crossword puzzles at highway-rail grade crossings. The rationale for such a scheme was that those crossword puzzles would instantly catch the attention of automobile drivers, who would then come to a complete stop rather than continue traveling uninterrupted over the train tracks. (“Cross-Word Puzzles Urged to Stop Autoists,” proclaimed a headline in the December 16 edition of the Washington Post.) Even the normally reserved Hoover shook with laughter upon hearing this farfetched idea for highway safety.

Overall, however, many of the recommendations made at the conference were viewed as potentially effective lifesaving solutions and formally approved by those in attendance. These recommendations included stronger licensing requirements for new drivers and stricter enforcement of traffic laws. In these ways and others, that 1924 conference helped set the stage for subsequent national traffic safety meetings over the next several decades.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety in 1924, please check out https://rspcb.safety.fhwa.dot.gov/RSF/unit1.aspx

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