History of Driver's Ed: Simulators and Scare Films
Though it has a longer history, driver's education since the '50s has two components nobody can forget: driving simulators and scare films. The simulators were contraptions that were supposed to approximate driving conditions, and many vintage simulators are still in use today. But mastering the mechanics of steering, shifting and braking wasn't the only reason teens were taking driver's ed. There was also driver safety, and back in the day, the "safety" component was all about scaring the bejeezus out of the kids. So-called "scare films" included stern warnings, tales of lives ruined by carelessness, scenes of twisted wreckage, even graphic bloody imagery from real crashes -- nothing was out of bounds in the quest to keep teenagers from injury or death on the road. Over time, these films grew increasingly intense in their attempts to scare safe driving habits into young drivers. Why pay to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the theater when they're showing Death on the Highway at school for free?
The Father of Driver's Ed
Driver's education, the concept, was the brainchild of Amos Neyhart, a teacher of industrial safety at Penn State University. Following an incdent in which his parked car was hit by a drunk driver, Neyhart began advocating for safety, and landed on the revolutionary idea that instilling safe driving habits in kids would make them better drivers for life, and thus decrease accidents on the road. Neyhart began teaching driver's ed at State College High School in the mid-1930s, and authored the first textbook, The Safe Operation of an Automobile, in 1934.
Those Wacky Driver's Ed Simulators
Neyhart's instruction used his own 1929 Graham-Paige (that's a car) for demonstration and test driving, but getting kids on the road one at a time was inefficient given the number of students. In the early '50s, only about one percent of them were getting on-road instruction; to solve the problem, insurance company Aetna invented the Aetna Drivotrainer which was introduced in Brooklyn in 1953. Students sat in this boxy simulator, watched an instructional film projected in front of them, and attempted to move the wheel, pedals and gear shift as necessary. Instruments recorded their performance, and issued a printout assessing their abilities.
The driving simulators became (and still are) a central feature of many driver's education classes, though later generations got to use something slightly cooler than the Drivotrainer. Simulators of the '60s and '70s were designed by automobile manufacturers and approximated the look and feel of actual production models -- so that teens could claim to have learned on, say, a Dodge Dart. It didn't have wheels or a roof or a real engine, but it had a real Dodge Dart seat, steering wheel, and dashboard.
If the vintage driver's ed simulators were odd-looking, the instructional films -- known as "scare films" -- were simply terrifying. They started out as cautionary tales about lives ruined, but drifted in more of a cinema verite direction, prioritizing discomforting visuals over real instructional information.
Scare Films of the 1950s: Bad Examples and Stern Warnings
Last Date (1950)
Before playing Darren Stephens on Bewitched, Dick York starred in the short film Last Date in 1950. In the film, he plays a character who goes joyriding with his girlfriend, Jeanne. Due to his reckless driving, their date ends in a car accident which leaves Jeanne’s face disfigured. Last Date was one of the more well-known films sponsored by Lumbermens Mutual Casualty Company and its parent company, Kemper Insurance. The film won multiple awards and was named best nontheatrical picture on the prevention of traffic accidents by the National Committee on Films for Safety in 1949. It also coined the term "teenicide" as "the fine art of killing yourself, and maybe someone else, with an automobile before you reach the age of twenty."
And Then There Were Four (1950)
Another Driver’s Ed scare film released in 1950 featured the voice of James Stewart. And Then There Were Four tells the story of five drivers. It is made clear early in the film that only four of those drivers will survive and viewers must watch in suspense to discover who will not make it. Much of the film is concentrated on the discussion of reckless driving habits. The film was originally shown in theatres before being released on the nontheatrical circuit. It also received an award from the National Committee on Films for Safety.
Appointment With Disaster (1956)
In 1956, Southwest Bell Telephone released a driver safety film entitled Appointment With Disaster. This was at least their second film of this type with the first being You’re Driving 90 Horses, which came out in 1949. Appointment With Disaster tells the story of three drivers who are in a hurry and make careless mistakes as a result. Like And Then There Were Four, the audience knows that one man will die, but not which one. In the end, it emphasizes how all three men, including the two who survived, were impacted by the crash.
None For The Road: Teenage Drinking And Driving (1957)
Released in 1957, None For The Road: Teenage Drinking And Driving was part of a series by Centron educational films and focuses specifically on the dangers of drinking and driving. It was directed by Herk Harvey. The film is narrated by Dr. Charles Wentworth, who claims to have spent his life studying the effects of alcohol. The story follows three friends with varying degrees of alcohol use, whose lives are changed by a head-on collision.
Scare Films Go Horror with 'Signal 30'
Signal 30 (1959)
In 1959, driver safety videos took a gruesome turn when the Highway Safety Films of Mansfield produced Signal 30, the first of a long line of graphic educational films designed to scare young drivers into exercising caution. The film incorporated footage of corpses from actual accidents and was shown to high school students across the country during the 1960s. It was produced by Richard Wayman and narrated by Wayne Byers. “Signal 30” is the radio code used by the Ohio State Highway Patrol for a fatal traffic accident. The film won a National Safety Council Award and inspired future films to follow its gory path to road safety.
Anatomy Of An Accident (1961)
The 1961 film Anatomy Of An Accident deals with the aftermath of a car crash. It stars David Wayne, who is best known for his roles in Adam’s Rib (1949), The Andromeda Strain (1973) and Batman (1966-1968). Wayne plays a telephone company employee who haunts his family after dying in a car crash. Throughout the film, the crash is analyzed as to possible causes and focuses on safe driving habits.
Highways of Agony (1969)
One of the sequels to Signal 30 was 1969’s Highways of Agony. Produced by Earle Deems and narrated by Wayne Byers, it is considered Highway Safety Film’s “magnum opus of highway horror.” It expands upon the style of its predecessor with the addition of an unnerving musical score by Hungarian composer Zoltan Rozxnvai and includes dramatizations to introduce its scenes of carnage.
Red Asphalt (1964-2006)
In 1964, the California Highway Patrol produced Red Asphalt, the first of a five-volume series of graphic Driver’s Ed scare films. The most recent film in the series, Red Asphalt V, was released in 2006. Much like other films in the genre that began with Signal 30, the films rely on gruesome imagery of fatal car crashes to deliver their message. Despite being criticized by the Los Angeles Times for their bad acting and use of fear rather than an appeal to reason, the films are still shown in many high schools today.
The Scare Movie as Bloody Art Film
Death On The Highway (1971)
In 1971, an organization called “The Suicide Club” sought to surpass the productions of the Highway Safety Films of Ohio in terms of gruesomeness. The result of this was a film entitled Death On The Highway. Unlike other films in the genre which show video footage of traffic accidents, this film relied on still images which had been enhanced with red paint. These images include corpses which were burnt, beheaded, dismembered, and cut in half. The final image is of two children with their arms torn off.