The arrival of spring and summer is heralded each year by flowers and trees bursting into bloom. But in modern-day civilization, it is also accompanied by an almost universal compulsion to "hit the road." The population of the United States embarks on an odyssey toward all compass points that turns our highways into surging rivers of steel, rubber and exhaust fumes in a mechanized Rite of Spring.
When rules of safe and courteous driving are left at home, however, this lemminglike wave sadly travels to the dirge of suffering and death. Government agencies and private advocacy groups now expend considerable time and money trying to minimize the carnage that, in the blink of an eye, can turn any family's enjoyment into unforgettable pain and loss. Could it be any worse? Undeniably affirmative, save for the Elks almost 60 years ago.
Approaching the turn of the century, the dirt and cobblestone roads long accustomed to wagons and four-legged travelers were beginning to echo with the clanking and putt-putting of a handful of horseless conveyances -- many of them homemade experiments. Mr. Ford had built his first vehicle in 1896. By 1900 -- a scant four years later -- 8,000 automobiles were already registered in America (not counting a vast number of unregistered contraptions). Ford's 10 millionth car rolled off his assembly line by 1924, and in 1929 alone, nationwide production topped the three million mark.
By itself this proliferation was bound to have a great impact on life in the United States, but very early in the transition from the easygoing lifestyle of the late 1800s and Ole Dobbin's retirement to the pasture, another factor entered the picture: Speed!
In 1910, Barney oldfield set a record of 133 miles-per-hour that turned America's burgeoning Romance of the Open Road into a torrid and tempestuous passion that raced and skidded into the present with only a few rest stops for gas shortages, pollution regulations ... and casualties.
The siren song of "faster, faster" meant that quiet, law-abiding citizens with deeply buried dreams of adventure need not launch expeditions to distant mountain peaks or teeming jungles for fulfillment, but just climb behind the wheel and "put the pedal to the metal," blind to the Grim Reaper riding on the fender.
From the first traffic fatality in September, 1899, in New York City, the speedometer of death accelerated across the country's funereally colored blacktops. In 1917, 6,800 people perished on the roads; five years later, the annual toll had almost doubled to 12,700, and in 1937, 39,643 victims were crushed beneath the "wheels" of progress. Some of these were obviously from mechanical malfunctions or poor design, and were subsequently made improbable following this brutal trial-and-error process. But the actions of the human components made it clear that what was called for was not another invention but intervention by a powerful segment of society that could send a loud and clear message of safety and reason to the far corners of our nation.
For seven decades, the Elks had been relieving suffering, often without being asked. This proactive benevolence, long before the term even existed, now motivated the nearly 500,000 members, all leading citizens of 1,350 towns. Deeply concerned with the tragic aspects of automotive travel, the Order took the bold step of conducting a media blitz for 13 continuous weeks, broadcasting safe driving messages on over a third of the nation's radio stations from November 1, 1937, through the holiday season. The campaign heightened public awareness, led to vastly improved laws and traffic-control devices, and promoted safer road and automobile planning.
While impossible to accurately tabulate how many lives have since been saved by this wake-up call to the American public, its salutary effect was immediately apparent. Editorials in the major newspapers and the voice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt carried effusive praise for the Elks in the face of a 27 percent reduction in fatalities over the preceding year -- an estimated 3,780 lives saved -- the largest drop in 11 years.
Having seen a need for change, the Elks took decisive action and improved life for everyone in America. When the government and others formed permanent safety instructional agencies and programs, the Elks, as usual, moved on to other items on their agenda of benevolence.
The next time you get behind the wheel and fasten your seat belt, remember that the Elks were thinking of your safety long before you were ... and drive safely.