Oh, Rapture! It was the last day of driver’s education, which so happened to joyfully coincide with being awarded my first driver’s license. The time was approaching to liberate myself from 11 years of a laborious and repressively slow means of mechanized mobility—my bicycle. Not to mention the exhilaration of no longer depending on mandated parental chauffeuring.
Several days earlier, our instructor passed out release forms to view a driver safety film on the last day of class. I’d heard of this movie before from seasoned upperclassmen-footage from actual traffic accidents was shown in a grisly, brutal fashion. Stories circulated of students losing their lunch and passing out from the images of bloodied human remains.
The objective was to permanently imprint upon our young retinas the consequences of reckless driving.
For my friends and me, the idea of corpses being pulled out of mangled metal only made the buildup more electrifying. I’d been sheltered from death of all forms up to that point in my life. Drawn to the doom, I had to bear witness. I needed proof.
Many of you may recall seeing driver’s education films produced between 1959-79 by the Highway Safety Commission. Titles included: Death on the Highway, Mechanized Death, Highway Agony, Signal 30 and Wheels of Tragedy, and featured real highway patrolmen reenacting actual scenes. I’m sure you found the storyboard, lighting, background music and compassionless, monotone voiceovers as unconvincing as I did.
This was not the case for our film. Although no one in our class passed out, no one said a word or made eye contact either. As we filed out of the classroom, us guys tried to make light of it all, but there was no hiding the fact our young, impressionable minds would be haunted by those unfathomable images.
I never wanted to get into a car again, much less drive one. Well, at least until the following week when I drove my date to my first drive-in movie—both hands on the wheel, of course.
I recently came across a few of those old driver education movies on YouTube and was surprised I could still recognize some of the scenes. Although I didn’t experience the same visceral response I had when pimples ruled, I still found the images repulsive and sad, despite all my vintage years as a paramedic.
Part of the sadness (mixed with thankfulness) came from analyzing these tragic films from a current automotive, EMS, Fire and law enforcement perspective. Watching these injured patients encased in metal coffins reminded me of how far we’ve come in automotive safety and design.
Many of the entrapped patients couldn’t be extricated in time to be saved. Images of frantic bystanders trying to free victims using picks, shovels, crowbars, chains tied to other vehicles and even their bare hands gave a desperate, hapless image of “too little, too late.”
What was most disturbing as a medic was watching the suffering victims needlessly bleeding to death, or losing their airway, with only a blanket or sympathetic touch as provision for help.
And don’t get me started on the treatment provided by the “ambulance drivers.” Yes, I said ambulance drivers. At least they didn’t waste time on scene or enroute to the mortuary.
Did it make me a safer driver to watch the uncensored footage of crushed victims being pulled from twisted vehicles? Maybe, but I do know it created as much of an intimate relationship with death that I could’ve ever imagined without actually being there.
These films weren’t artistically manufactured horror pictures filtered from a safe distance. They depicted raw death, real blood and real pain-and I’ve been wearing a seat belt ever since I put that new license in my wallet.
Despite all our advances in automotive design and public health and safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still reports more than 2,500 teenagers are still dying each year in the United States from motor vehicle accidents—half of whom weren’t wearing seat belts at the times of the accidents.
Maybe it’s time to revisit these films as a gruesomely relevant, integral part of driver’s education—another tool to remind drivers and passengers they aren’t invincible. Hmm, maybe it should include ambulance accident footage of the rear patient compartment. Seat belts, anyone?