News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 17, 2013

Historical Treasure: A guide for road safety

Chris Weber
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Currently on display at the Vigo County Historical Museum, and running through June, is an exhibit dedicated to the history of transportation in Vigo County. Many of the items in the exhibit revolve around the importance of Vigo County to the developing transportation history of the United States.

From the importance of trade and commerce on the Wabash, the evolution of the Cumberland Trail into the later National Road, and the central relevance of Vigo County as a rail hub, there are displays that walk the visitor through Vigo County’s importance in our national transportation history.

However, there is one item on display that is unique to our state transportation history. “The Indiana Traffic Safety Guide: A Digest of Laws Governing the Ownership, Registration and Operation of Motor Vehicles, Together with Other Useful Information” is actually one of the most important documents in Indiana automobile history. From 1939, this manual is dedicated to educating the Indiana driver on the responsibilities of operating a motor vehicle. It is also the first such manual tied to the mandatory examination of Indiana drivers.

The “Traffic Safety Guide” was published during the term of Governor M. Clifford Townsend, who served from 1937 to 1941. Townsend is credited with two unique distinctions that are important to the transportation history of Indiana. The first, the Traffic Code of 1939 (of which the “Traffic Safety Guide” is the result), mandated that all Indiana drivers had to pass an examination to receive a driver’s license. The second, painting school buses bright yellow for high visibility, became the standard in the rest of the nation in the same year.

What is remarkable about the “Traffic Safety Guide” is how relevant it still is today. While some things like speed limits have changed in the last 74 years, most of the regulations and safety suggestions are comparable to the current driver’s manual. The guide details the driver’s responsibility to safety in many different sections; from other cars and drivers, to pedestrians and bicycles, the Indiana driver was given the responsibility to make the roads a safer place to travel. The guide also outlines the responsibilities of bicyclists and pedestrians when utilizing Indiana roads. Very little is left out in attempting to improve road safety.

In the foreword, Townsend states that the roads would be safer with “the cooperation of vehicle owners, drivers and pedestrians” and asks that everyone do their “part in preventing the frightful, useless tragedies on the highways.”  The “Traffic Safety Guide” was a first step in improving the safety on Indiana’s roads, and after all of these years, Townsend’s request is still relevant.