Movie Madness and/or Mania: Hell’s Highway, The True Story of Highway Safety Films (Bret Wood, 2003)

hellshighway

Bret Wood’s documentary on the gory Driver’s Ed movies that are fondly (or traumatically) remembered by Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers opens by acknowledging that a big part of the appeal is the urban legend factor: even students who never took driver’s ed in high school still have stories of a friend or a friend-of-a-friend who threw up or fainted on “movie day.”

Rick Prelinger, the foremost historian on “ephemeral” (educational, industrial, advertising and amateur) films is interviewed on the sudden ascendance of classroom “social guidance” short films after World War II, when the proven effectiveness of military training films (and a surplus of projection equipment), and the looming menace of juvenile delinquency inspired films dealing with topics from dating to manners to personal hygiene. While drivers’ safety films date back to the 1930s, they had been marketed to adults. Then, in 1959 the Highway Safety Foundation, based out of Mansfield, Ohio released Signal 30, the first film intended to scare teenage drivers safe.

It is telling that the HSF, despite their high-minded ideals, got its start as a sideshow attraction, when founders Richard Wayman and Phyllis Vaughn began touring county fairs with slideshows of gory auto accident scenes, ostensibly to promote safe driving and lobby for higher safety standards in automotive design. Signal 30 replicated this formula, using color (and sound) movie footage of actual accident scenes to supplement a cautionary narrative about teenagers’ reckless driving and the tragic consequences.

Signal 30’s authentic blood and screams (the title refers to the radio code used by the Ohio State Highway Patrol for a traffic fatality) made the movie an instant sensation, and Wayman and Vaughn followed it up with dozens more, using the same formula and increasingly sensational titles: Mechanized Death (1961), Wheels of Tragedy (1963), Highways of Agony (1969).

HSF dominated the market in the 1960s, as the imitators that sprung up in the wake of their success lacked the subtlety of the originals, staging accidents and doctoring footage with red paint when it wasn’t gory enough… although in an age before seatbelts and safety glass, “subtlety” is a relative term when discussing full-color footage of mangled hot rodders.

HSF’s output slowed in the 1970s, due in part to new educational philosophies and the sudden death of co-founder Phyllis Vaughn, a victim of changing times…

Or possibly a victim of murder, mafia involvement, financial maleficence, porn and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Wood kind of buries the lede here. He interviews an Ohio Observer reporter who had been researching claims of police brutality in the local sheriff’s department, when he kept hearing rumors that Phyllis Vaughn had been murdered for Knowing Too Much, specifically regarding that fact that the HSF had a side business making porno movies on their promotional bus.

While Wood never comes to any conclusions about the veracity of those rumors, Richard Wayman’s eventually downfall is still pretty bizarre, as he expands HSF into making other kinds of educational and industrial safety films (which eventually involves pitching a safety film to Jimmy Hoffa for the Teamsters). Wayman also opened driving schools and “Safety Town”, a program on pedestrian safety for children. Then came a HSF-sponsored celebrity golf tournament, which put Wayman in the same orbit as Sammy Davis, Jr., which led to a national telethon. Poorly organized and dominated by Wayman and Davis’s dueling egos, the telethon failed to make back even its costs and HSF abruptly ceased operations in 1974.

Wood brings the film full circle by touching on two of HSF’s most (urban-)legendary productions.

The first is the banally-titled Camera Surveillance (1964), a police training video about taking film surveillance footage to use as evidence at trial. Produced in conjunction with a police sting operation on a public restroom in Mansfield, the film includes some unintentionally hilarious footage of gay cruising during the Johnson years (SEE WHAT I DID THERE!!!!!)

It is noted that this is possibly the source of the “porn bus” rumors.

And finally, Wood discusses HSF’s 1964 film The Child Molester, in which the filmmakers attempt to apply the Signal 30 formula to the “stranger danger” scare film, including actual footage of murdered children. He interviews a couple of adults who had seen it in school as young children, who recall that the concept was exactly as traumatizing as it sounds.

As far as documentary style, Hell’s Highway is the standard mix of film clips and interviews, but the talking heads are chosen with care, including Prelinger, Something Weird Video founder Mike Vraney, and a handful of the surviving HSF filmmakers.

Availability:

DVD; streaming on Amazon

The Highway Safety Foundation’s films are easily found online, through Youtube and at Archive.org, which also offers (free!) streaming video of thousands of titles from the Prelinger Archives.

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