A Celebration Day for All Drivers!
The Anniversary of Our Interstate Highways
On June 29, 1956 a bill was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower that changed the future of American drivers forever. He enacted the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 . This provided the fiscal ability to create 41,000 miles of our most ambitious road construction project. Limited-access roads would be built throughout America allowing travel between distant destinations without the requirement to stop. There would be zero traffic lights or stop signs. It was a design first seen years before by General Eisenhower while he served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. Yes, the General had noticed Hitler’s method for moving troops quickly around Germany on the Autobahn; and had vowed to himself to one day build them in America.
As commander of the Allied forces in the European theater during World War II, Eisenhower had a BIG challenge in his efforts to defeat Nazism and reintroduce freedom into countries occupied since 1939 by Hitler’s armies. Each had cruel soldiers from Germany throughout their land whose soldiers’ role was to fight all attempts from America, England, Poland, France to remove those German occupiers. Death was their threat, and many Americans, and others, paid that price.
To begin the effort for an Allied army to begin restoring European freedom, Eisenhower and his generals, organized their invasion force and planned how they would regain control of the continent beginning at their bases throughout England. From there, ships containing thousands of soldiers would leave that island, sail across the English Channel, and arrive on the beaches of France. There they would be met with fierce resistance from Axis soldiers and their guns on the beaches of Normandy, and elsewhere in France. The Allies chose the date of June 6, 1944 as their “D-day” to begin their attack.
The invasion started with paratroopers dropping behind enemy lines, and continued with the landing of soldiers from many nations to fight their mighty, evil, opponents. By day’s end, with a combination of skill and luck, the Allies established a beachhead that continued their plan to retake the Continent and defeat Germany.
In the course of this military action, thousands were killed on both sides. Meanwhile, the Allies steadily moved forward using existing roads, bridges and lanes. When necessary, they built the bridges needed to cross waterways or rivers. As they progressed into Germany, they were surprised to encounter an unusual road design they had never before encountered.
Instead, a design was created that allowed traffic to access the Main road while maintaining speed, rather than beginning from full stop. Ramps were created that allowed vehicles to gain speed and progressively integrate with vehicles already traveling on the main road. Beginning as two separate lanes that became one, this allowed speeds on both roads to become similar gradually, for smoother, safer vehicle meshing together. This driving activity became known as merging, or blending, with traffic. One of these styles was used as an acceleration lane, the other, a deceleration lane was used for changing to slower speeds.
Other common collision locations changed by the Autostrada were those used for turning or changing direction. Again, a new, technically-safer, design was created. Instead of two grade-level roads intersecting with one another at a 90 degree site, it was changed so that one road was moved onto a bridge that passed over the first road; the design was named an overpass. Hence the Main road could pass beneath the former intersection without slowing, and continue safe travel. This design too revolutionized roadway travel!
Soon after it was built, traffic engineers from many countries, including Germany, became aware of the safety features and increased speeds available on Italy’s new road. Also during that time a political leader named Hitler was becoming increasingly powerful; he envisioned a plan to mobilize the German army for travel on his limited-access roadway system. He named it the Autobahn.
This brings us back to General Eisenhower’s Autobahn experience. Once “Ike” had discovered, and traveled upon, this new-to-him style of roadway, he recognized those design benefits unavailable on American roads. He proceeded to use those for his military purposes, as had Hitler, and never forgot how they improved travel efficiency and safety for his soldiers.
The history of Eisenhower’s European defeat of German troops needn’t be retold here; he returned to America as a conquering hero. The German army had been defeated and Hitler was dead. Now began the rebuilding of all countries previously occupied.
In 1945, President Truman had succeeded Roosevelt after his death. Shortly thereafter, another conflict arose, and ended, on the Korean peninsula. Truman’s term in office then ended. By then, Eisenhower’s popularity made him an irresistible Presidential candidate and was elected as a Republican in 1952.
After the election President Eisenhower had a number of important issues to resolve, including a military presence in South Korea and maintaining a good economy at home. However, his memories of driving on German roads were never far from his mind.
As a result, he had many discussions with members of Congress with the idea of “bringing the Autobahn” to America. His goal was a new roadway system that spanned the width and length of America to serve the mobility needs of his growing population. It was to feature the most advanced safety designs for intersections and other road engineering safety features. These included multiple lanes, break-away light poles, nighttime road illumination, impact barriers for obstacles, safer places to leave the roadway, and many others.
The Congress and Eisenhower knew this plan would require a major financial commitment, and they eventually passed the bill in the House and Senate before arriving on the President’s desk for signature. He was very excited that his dream had been realized by signing the National Defense Highway Act of 1956. Afterward construction around the country began and eventually led to a completely new way for Americans to travel. Though even today, new roads, and revisions are added every year, the fundamental system exists throughout our country.
No longer does long distance travel require multiple stops while passing through every town. Instead, drivers can enter onto an “Interstate” highway on the East coast and travel westward, without stopping (except for fuel and rest) all the way to a city on the Pacific Ocean! It became a miracle that millions of Americans came to appreciate. Everywhere Americans have given these roads their local names, freeway, expressway and highway are common, but the undeniable father of this system remains Dwight J. Eisenhower.