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.
// 1966, color // THE THIRD KILLER
BACKSTORY: This one’s got real cinematic style – and, believe it or not, a wisp of a plot. It follows the machinations of one Mr. Rellik (TV actor Robert Simon), a “salesman” of death. Facing the decline of his top two accounts (heart disease and cancer), thanks to all those meddling doctors and their medical advances, Rellik pursues the third killer – traffic fatalities – by giving hapless motorists bad advice that results in their deaths.
DEADLY DIALOGUE: “Well, you’ve got one of those new X-2 supercharged motors, haven’t you? They’re supposed to take a milk truck up to a hundred and thirty. Why don’t you open it up on the way home?” “Hmm. I might.”
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: Mr. Rellik (“killer” spelled backward, get it?) standing on a highway overpass, madly swinging his attaché case and hurling curses at the passing traffic. (“Run, you fools! Make my third account the bloodiest in the history of the world!”) He scares us.
POSTMORTEM: The Highway Safety Foundation clearly sank a bundle into this one, and it shows. Did it make better drivers? That, unfortunately, isn’t so obvious.
// 1950, black and white // LAST DATE
BACKSTORY: Although it predates Wayman’s cinema verité gore flicks by almost a decade, Last Date is famous as the first film to single out the teenage driver as a roadgoing menace (it was bankrolled by an insurance company, after all). There’s star power here, too, with a young Dick York (known for his role as Darrin in Bewitched; above, second from left) as bad-boy-with-a-lead-foot Nick, whose reckless charm lures our good-girl narrator, Jeanne, into the passenger seat of his snazzy ’32 Ford hot rod. Bad idea, Jeanne; it ain’t called Last Date for nothing.
DEADLY DIALOGUE: “Do you have to take corners on two wheels?” “Why not? Two wheels are better than none – that’s what my old man always says.”
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: Permanently disfigured after merging with the windshield of Nick’s Deuce (“My face! My face!”) and no longer able to stand the sight of herself, narrator Jeanne – filmed entirely from behind – smashes her bedroom mirror with a hair brush and collapses in a fit of weeping.
POSTMORTEM: Last Date introduced “teenicide” to the safety-film lexicon, and the term was later pirated as the title for another driver’s ed flick.
// 1971, color (with extra red!) // DEATH ON THE HIGHWAY
BACKSTORY: Made by an organization calling itself The Suicide Club, Death on the Highway is pieced together with less finesse than Richard Wayman’s films, but it nonetheless could be the most shocking driver’s ed film of all. It’s got the usual flashing-light accident scenes (lots of them) mixed with some positively eye-popping still photos (most of them, like the image below, luridly and unnecessarily splashed with red paint for extra shock value). The narration is just about perfect: appropriately understated (“Burning is a horrible way to die . . . “) and a little bit pissed-off (“Consider the possibility that every other driver you meet on the road may be drunk, blind, or just plain stupid . . . “).
NOTABLE NARRATION: “A lot of people don’t realize it, but you cannot see as well at night as you can in the daytime.”
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: How about the young man whose upper body (sprawled out on the pavement) took leave of his lower body (still seated behind the wheel), after an 80-mph crash?
POSTMORTEM: Even after sitting through more than a dozen of these blood-and-guts highway safetyfilms, Death on the Highway – with its ghastly parade of pulverized, dismembered, blood-soaked, charbroiled, armless, legless, headless, and altogether luckless motorists – made this writer distinctly green around the gills. In this company, however, that’s high praise.
// 1979, color // OPTIONS TO LIVE
BACKSTORY: One of the last highway-safety films, the ironically titled Options to Live amounts to something of a greatest-hits compilation of dead, dying, and merely maimed accident victims from previous films by the Highway Safety Foundation, narrated to deadpan perfection by the jowly Karl Mackey.
NOTABLE NARRATION: “A nice shiny car, a few drinks, a beautiful summer day: a combination that ended in death.”
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: A hapless motorcyclist lies belly-down dead in a ditch, sans helmet and, apparently, sans head.
POSTMORTEM: Indisputably grim, but like all best-of compilations, this film suffers from the curse of been-there-done-that. Moreover, you have to imagine that when this film debuted in 1979, scenes of wrecks featuring cars from the 1950s, no matter how harrowing, were starting to seem almost quaint, like outtakes from Happy Days.
// 1973, color // FOR WANT OF A SEAT BELT
BACKSTORY: This one starts out innocuously enough, with a dry lecture from bespectacled Arizona governor Jack Williams about the importance of safety belt use. But things get ugly fast. Real ugly, real fast. Sounding like he’s giving a courtroom autopsy briefing, our monotonal narrator (a plastic surgeon, we’re told – yikes!) describes in vomitous detail a series of still photographs depicting accident victims’ glass-shredded and dash-mashed faces, one after another after another after another, until at last this slide show of horrors is mercifully preempted by a cautionary monologue from a facially reconstructed crash survivor (and new seatbelt advocate, go figure) named – no lie – Mrs. Gore.
NOTABLE NARRATION: “In the area of the nose and what were the lips, you can note that the nose is folded back to the left, much like opening the pages of a book. So, you can see the inside of the right nostril, the left nostril, the corresponding portion of the left nostril, and then you can see completely through the right nostril, folded over onto the left cheek. His lips, too, have been folded back here, and you can see his front teeth.”
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: Take your pick. How about the one of the guy who, while driving in Arizona, crashed his car into a wayward horse, the carcass of which subsequently landed on – and squashed – his head?
POSTMORTEM: Perhaps better titled For Want of a Barf Bag.
// 1969, color // HIGHWAYS OF AGONY
BACKSTORY: As if full-color scenes of interstate carnage weren’t disturbing enough on their own, Highway Safety Foundation producer Earle J. Deems scored much of this film with deeply creepy, Phantom of the Opera – type pipe-organ music. Additionally notable (if only to Ralph Nader) for a sequence in which a Chevrolet Corvair is perfectly bisected by a large truck. (Damn, maybe he was right about those things after all.)
NOTABLE NARRATION: “An autopsy revealed enough physical injury to kill three people.”
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: We can’t shake the scene of a barbecued elderly couple being disentangled from their smoldering lump of a car after driving it into a highway overpass. And you thought old people smelled funny before.
POSTMORTEM: Earle Deems pulled out his organ for this one, and we were frightened.
// 1972, black and white // THE LAST PROM
BACKSTORY: Bleaker-than-bleak tale of high-schooler Bill Donovan, his prom date Sandy Clark, and the real object of Bill’s affection, a ’60 Oldsmobile convertible. Made in 1972 but puzzlingly fixated on the ’50s, with loads of Brylcreem and patent leather and words like “neat-o” and “snazzy,” the gist of it is this: Bill’s a bad driver and Sandy knows it, but she can’t resist his sneering animal magnetism. Needless to say, prom night ends badly for both of them, a necking couple in the back seat, and the Olds, too.
NOTABLE NARRATION: “Was it a pretty face that made this gaping, jagged hole in the windshield?”
NIGHTMARE IMAGE: Drenched in Bosco, a teenage actor (one of the back-seat neckers, below) howls in agony as she is hefted out of the wrecked Oldsmobile by two guys dressed like hotel doormen, while a discordant, Invasion of the Body Snatchers – style score plays and plays and plays.
POSTMORTEM: This picture caused such a stir, despite its nutty ’50s dress and decor, that it was remade in 1980 – in color. For that go-round, Sandy’s pretty face made a gaping, jagged hole in the windshield of a crappy, white Ford van instead of a cherry Oldsmobile ragtop.