Mechanized Death, Wheels of Tragedy, Highways of Agony... generations of drivers' education students whispered the names of highway safety films so horrifying that they made jocks faint and reduced impressionable girls to tears. Teen dramatics aside, highway safety films of the 1960s (the genre's golden age) were as gory as horror pictures and harder to...read more
Mechanized Death, Wheels of Tragedy, Highways of Agony... generations of drivers' education students whispered the names of highway safety films so horrifying that they made jocks faint and reduced impressionable girls to tears. Teen dramatics aside, highway safety films of the 1960s (the genre's golden age) were as gory as horror pictures and harder to shake: Their images of death and mutilation were real. The cream of the bloody crop were produced by Mansfield, Ohio-based Safety Enterprises, a division of entrepreneur Richard Wayman's Highway Safety Foundation. Director Bret Wood, co-author of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film, focuses on the Highway Safety Foundation while placing its output in the larger context of post-WWII social conditioning films, which instructed wayward youths in everything from proper hygiene to the importance of potato farming. An accountant who logged long hours in his car, Wayman began photographing accidents in the mid-1950s and incorporated them into highway safety lectures he delivered on a volunteer basis at state fairs and other public events. He recruited the help of local newspaper photographer John Domer and sister shutterbugs Phyllis Vaughn and Dottie Vaughn Deems, and the group began gaining local attention for their crusade. Soon after, they added movie footage to their arsenal of scare tactics and in 1959 released the pioneering Signal 30, named after the police radio code for a fatal traffic accident. Signal 30 established a much copied formula: reenactments of events preceding an accident, bloody footage of real crash sites and shots of horrified police officers and state troopers going about their business. Safety Enterprises subsequently branched out into police training films and other subjects notably the notorious The Child Molester (1964), which scared children out of their wits in the service of teaching them not to talk to strangers but highway safety was their bread and butter. Interviews with Domer, Earle Deems (Dottie's husband) and retired Mansfield police chief John Butler provide first-hand accounts of the day-to-day business of the Highway Safety Foundation, whose later years were marred by apparently baseless accusations of sordid wrongdoing. The company folded in 1974 after a splashy but ill-conceived highway safety telethon depleted its finances. Ephemeral films expert Rick Prelinger is on hand to situate the films in a larger cultural context but the clips speak louder than any interview, evoking a pre-seatbelt era of highway carnage and celluloid tough love.
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