For millions of American teenagers who earned a driver's license from the 1950s to the 1980s, that big event was preceded by something decidedly less joyful: the driver-education film. You may have forgotten the title, but you remember the pictures: flashing lights, mangled metal, battered bodies, and blood - lots of blood.Highway safety films that targeted the Teenage Menace have been around since the early 1950s, but the driver's ed movies everybody thinks of when they think of driver's ed movies didn't appear until 1959, when a half-hour horror show called Signal 30 changed everything. Shot "in living - and dying - color" and made with the cooperation and encouragement of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, Signal 30 (cop-speak for death on the highway) was a smash hit in every sense of the term. With it, director Richard Wayman defined a fairly foolproof recipe that would inform a bevy of sequels and copycat filmmakers: Take some shaky 16-millimeter clips of wrecked cars and their wrecked occupants, describe each in omniscient voice-over, add a pinch of doleful commentary (" . . . another life snatched by carelessness . . . "), and set the whole thing to an impassioned, Dragnet-style musical score.
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, these films shocked, grossed out, and ghoulishly amused millions of soon-to-be drivers, but by the end of the Me Decade, interest was fading. Cars were becoming more crashworthy and their passenger compartments vastly more merciful. Amid the disappearance of the rigid steering column, the face-flattening steel dashboard, and all those jagged and unforgiving metal knobs and switches, not to mention the growing availability and usage of seatbelts, good gore was getting harder to find. Then, sometime during the 1980s, perhaps with the retirement of the last driver's ed teacher who would show them (or the breakdown of the last projector that could show them), the highway safety film itself became a "signal 30," and hundreds of hapless accident victims, unknowingly filmed on their worst day, were at last allowed to rest in peace - or, in some cases, pieces. An era was over.
* For an in-depth history of the driver's ed scare film, check out Bret Wood's sharp 2003 documentary, Hell's Highway, available from Kino International (800 - 562 - 3330; www.kino.com). Or, for the films themselves, contact Something Weird Video (888 - 634 - 3320; www.somethingweird.com).
// 1959, color// SIGNAL 30
BACKSTORY: Titled for the Ohio State Highway Patrol's radio code for death on the highway, this twenty-eight-minute gorefest (just the right length for a regular high-school class period) marks the debut motion picture of driver-education pioneer Richard Wayman - an insomniac accountant with a fascination for the highway patrol - who drove around Ohio with a police scanner and a handheld 16-millimeter camera looking for vehicular carnage. He found plenty.
NOTABLE NARRATION: "The finale to the tragedy comes as the lad is placed in the rubber sack, a last offering to the great god Speed."
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: A truck driver (above), squashed against the steering wheel and dashboard by 40,000 pounds of steel pipe behind him, is at last scooped out of is cab after a four-hour extrication effort.
POSTMORTEM: Incorporated in 1960, Wayman's Highway Safety Foundation was the driving force, so to speak, in driver's ed filmmaking. The Canadian film Safety or Slaughter (1958) may have been the first to incorporate footage from a real accident, but Signal 30 really defined the genre. It's the film against which all others are measured.
// 1961, color // MECHANIZED DEATH
BACKSTORY: Wayman's boffo sequel to Signal 30 is decidedly less subtle than its predecessor. There's no time to warm up with gloomy narration or board-stiff reenactments using Ohio State troopers. It's just buckets of blood from the very first frame, as a woman barks up a lung on the front seat of her smashed car. Notable here is Wayman's decision to accompany his grisly moving pictures with equally grisly audio tracks of the victims' shrieks, moans, and dying words.
NOTABLE NARRATION: "These are the sounds of excruciating agony. There are no words to describe agony. There are only sounds."
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: After a baby's bottle is discovered wedged in the door of a mangled car, cops decide to snoop around for the baby it belongs to. They find her - underneath the car.
POSTMORTEM: A film that makes you want to cover not just your eyes but your ears, too.
// 1963, color // WHEELS OF TRAGEDY
BACKSTORY: Completing the trilogy that started with Signal 30 and rolled on with Mechanized Death, Wayman further upped the cinematic ante with this film. Naturally, it's loaded with scenes of real wrecks and their bloody results, but in a stroke of evil genius, Wayman hired local amateur actors to recreate the victims' oblivious final moments in vignettes framed by a rookie cop's queasy ride-along with a world-weary veteran.
DEADLY DIALOGUE: "Frank, you're going too fast." "Relax, relax." "The speed limit's twenty-five." "I know, but everybody goes over the speed limit a little bit." "Oh, Frank, please slow down - you don't know this road." "Look, just let me drive, will ya? Just sit back and let me - ""Ahhhhhhrrrrrrggggghhhh!!!"
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: The veteran cop comes to the bedside of a paralyzed-from-the-neck-down woman (below) he rescued from a wreck two years earlier and asks, "Mrs. Andrews, how are you feeling?" How is she feeling? Not much, officer. Not much.
POSTMORTEM: A worthy if somewhat campy finale to Wayman's gruesome threesome. But even cheesy community-theater performances can't lighten the mood of this deadly demolition derby.