Highway Of Agony: How Traffic Safety Films Introduced Millions Of Kids To Scenes Of Real Death

The films of the Highway Safety Foundation defined victim blaming in car culture ... and trafficked in snuff.
Gif: Jason Torchnisky
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“There’s trouble ahead. Trouble that may or may not be a signal 30. What will we find? A minor mishap? Or will we look upon the stark face of death?” a deadpan narrator asks his audience. It’s a question you are forced to grapple with every time the scene changes in the first grim and bloody film from the Highway Safety Foundation, Signal 30 (1959)

(Warning, this article discusses violent death which might be disturbing to some readers. Viewer discretion is advised on all videos.)

Signal 30 refers to the code officers of the Ohio State Highway Patrol used to indicate a fatal car crash. The Highway Safety Foundation, a civilian nonprofit out of Madison, Ohio, were photography hobbyists Ohio police granted unfettered access to signal 30 crashes. In doing so, they created an entire genre know as traffic safety films. They combined educational instruction and exploitative snuff that introduced millions of teenagers to scenes of real death and carnage during America’s Golden Age of innocence. They hoped the horrible scenes would prevent such fatal car crashes in the future.

They didn’t.

What started as a merry band of insomniacs with fancy cameras and a fascination with police procedures, all came crashing down amid small town rumors and innuendo of secret porno shoots, bathroom cruising, a dead photographer and a failed telethon with Sammy Davis Jr.

Better Living Through Mental Hygiene

Just the term “mental hygiene” seems like a something you’d hear from a cult leader with a thesaurus. It’s not brainwashing, it’s hygiene for your mind! But mental hygiene films were an essential part of education in American schools for decades. These films covered everything from manners to dating to reproductive health for the Boomer generation.

Like many of America’s Golden Age phenomenons, mental hygiene films are rooted in World War II. The army found educational films extremely useful in quickly and efficiently training troops. This proof of concept, plus tens of thousands of army surplus projectors the government handed out to schools, meant using films to teach was considered fairly cutting edge and widespread in the ’50s and ’60s.

Many of these films survive thanks to the archival work and research of Rick Prelinger, who focuses on what’s called “ephemeral films” — films for a certain time and place, such as industrial films, advertisements and, of course, educational films.

“Kids weren’t very well supervised in World War II. Fathers might have been away fighting or working in defense plants, mothers were working,” Prelinger said in the 2003 documentary about the Highway Safety Foundation, Hell’s Highway. “You have the phenomenon of increased juvenile delinquency and there was a feeling that the family as we knew it would no longer be an important feature of American life. And that’s when the social guidance movement as we see it in film began.”

Films were produced by big names in education we still recognize today, like McGraw Hill and Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as long-gone specialty companies like Coronet Instructional Films. They were polished productions with professional actors, sets, scores and lighting meant to impress upon kids how to function in an idealized version of society, one as unrecognizable to people of the era as it is to us now.

Films like Beginning To Date (1953) taught young adults how to ask one another out. Benefits Of Looking Ahead showed dopey and likable teens learning they really do need a plan for the future. There were films on how to make friends (Developing Friendships, 1950) and movies about “girls” issues such as how to be a good homemaker (The Home Economics Story, 1951) how to dress more attractive (Clothes And You, 1954) or how to snag a husband (The Way To A Man’s Heart, 1945).

Traffic safety was no different. An extremely early and popular example was We Drivers (1935), which features pretty charming Jam Handy animation over live action scenes. There were five more We Drivers after the first, and the series reached an estimated reach of 30 million people. The film involves two characters, Reckless Rudolph and Sensible Sam, who represent “the dual personalities in all of us.” The two were the prototype for the angel and devil sitting on the shoulder of a film or TV character familiar to anyone who has seen a Loony Tunes cartoon.

We Drivers is also an early example of blaming drivers, rather than road or car design, for all crashes; a strong feature of future highway safety films.

Early safety films focused on blaming the victims of accidents. Such films were usually made by insurance companies and shown to industrial workers in an effort to try to cut down on casualties at dangerous factories without having to actually do anything to improve worker safety. The messaging was clear: You are responsible for what happens to you.

Driving instructional films for teens combined these two genres. Early driver’s education films, once again made by insurance companies, began to focus on “Teenicide” – death of a teen or someone else caused by their reckless intentional actions on the road.

“It was the “Just Say No” of its time,” Prelinger said. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, these films did little to deter the rising number of teen deaths on the road. Without anything we’d now consider basic standard measures, cars kept getting faster and kids kept dying. The powers-that-be at the time decided something drastic needed to be done, but without inconveniencing adults who were in awe of the interstate highway system their genius had created. Surely, nothing could be wrong with such testaments to American ingenuity as her roads and automobiles. No, it was the children who were wrong. The only answer seemed to be to try and shock teens on to the straight and narrow.

Films like Signal 30, Mechanized Death (1961), Wheels Of Tragedy (1963) and Highway of Agony (1969) set themselves apart by doing away the Leave It To Beaver artifice. They must have been a shock. They featured gritty realism, dark, detached narration and discombobulated framing of scenes of bloody mangled bodies during a time when the Hays Code kept most forms of entertainment squeaky clean. They retain all of their gut-twisting horror to this day, showing the last moments real humans experienced among the mangled colorful confetti of completely destroyed cars.

Despite, or maybe because of, their gory nature, traffic safety films were shown to generations of teenagers deep into the 1990s, decades after other mental hygiene films were tossed aside, in the hopes of scaring kids into becoming safer drivers.

They clearly didn’t work as car crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, remain the leading cause of death for American teenagers to this day.

Still, traffic safety films became rites of passage for millions of kids, as visceral and challenging to their moral fiber as dissecting a frog in Biology class.

Ambulance Racers: The Highway Safety Traffic Foundation Film

Depending on how you look at it, the story of Highway Safety Foundation films is one of remarkable genius or bloody exploitation. While the first person to put real accident footage into educational films was Ottawa filmmaker Budge Crawley, it’s the films of the Foundation’s founder Richard Wayman that are particularly remembered.

Wayman was a partner at the prestigious accounting firm Ernst & Ernst (now Ernst & Young) making an incredible salary of $300,000 in the 1950s. Wayman traveled around Ohio for his firm, and he’d stop and take photos of the many accidents he found along Ohio’s interstates.

His business partner and husband to one of his early photographers, Earle Deems, told Ken Smith for his book Mental Hygiene: Sex, Drugs, Dating, Driver’s Safety, that Wayman became interested in highways safety after a friend was killed in a crash. John P. Butler, former chief of the Mansfield, Ohio police department, told Hell’s Highways’ filmmakers that Wayman just liked hanging around police. He introduced himself to officers at the scene of a crash and eventually began hanging around the station. Wayman had insomnia while traveling and rather than lie wide awake in his hotel room he’d wander over to the Mansfield Ohio police station to go on a ride along or chat with officers.

Wayman proved quite useful, as his camera equipment was top notch, especially when compared to what the Ohio Highway Patrol were using. He assisted police with putting together a slideshow of crash scenes to show at fairs while they gave a talk about driving safety to anyone who would listen.

Highway Safety Foundation films literally began as a carnival sideshow.

Soon Wayman had his first partner, Phyllis Vaughn. Wayman made Vaughn the face of his operation, figuring that a woman who prowled the freeways at night with a camera would pique the interest of the media. He was right and regional papers around the country covered the strange photographer of roadside death. She got her sister in on the act, who in turn roped in her husband, too. Wayman’s crew also involved a reporter, giving him their first movie camera to film real accidents in full color at the request of the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Superintendent. With that footage, Signal 30 was born.

This close involvement with the Ohio State Highway Patrol would later come back to haunt the Highway Safety Foundation.

Signal 30 won an award from the National Safety Council and encouraged Wayman to found the production company Safety Enterprises, Inc. as well as the non-profit Highway Safety Foundation.

Wayman’s next film, Mechanized Death (1961) featured not only full-color footage of car crashes, but the audio of real people crying in pain or anguish at discovering a loved one had died. As haunting as the footage is, it’s the audio that really cuts to the core of the viewer.

With nothing more than 16mm cameras and readily-available car crashes, Wayman hit on a highly profitable idea that would be recreated by film companies and police around the country. By 1970, Wayman was boasting that forty million people had seen his films. While proponents of educational films found the Highway Safety Foundation distasteful, they admitted such shock treatment might be required to teach kids driving safety, according to Mental Hygiene.

Modern viewers will find these films have lost none of their impact. Even as a member of a generation raised on the internet with Rotten.com or SomethingAwful.com, I had a hard time watching some scenes. Highway Safety Foundation films show charred bodies still smoking as they were pulled from wrecks, crushed chests, bloody limbs at unnatural angles and even a baby thrown under a car during a crash in at least one film. Some films included hospital and surgery scenes, or showed the mangled barely recovered bodies of victims.

The scenes are naturally dark, shot usually at night on the side of the road using only native light. Shots are poorly framed, as they are filmed by amateurs on the fly, setting up a shot before the bodies could be pulled from the wrecks. The grittiness of the low production value is part of the overall effect. In a time when all media presented for mass consumption was cleanly produced, the shadowy scenes reinforce that this is real life, not the shiny version of reality presented in films like How To Be Well Groomed or As A Boy Grows...

It’s important to remember that these films were far more violent than anything else most ’50s and early ’60s would have had access to. These films were often American kid’s first taste of full-color ultra violence. Showing them at school, a normally safe and sanitized place, only added to the shock value.

The End Of The Road

By the early ’70s, strange things began swirling around Wayman and his Highway Safety Foundation. In Martin Yant’s book about Mansfield, Rotten To The Core, he discussed rumors of ambulance services kicking back money to the foundation and letting employees ride along in order to get better footage. Then, Wayman’s original photographer, Phyllis Vaughn, was found dead. Rumors again dogged Wayman. Was Vaughn murdered? Was she a former or even current lover of Wayman’s? Did the Highway Safety Foundation have something to do with her death? Was she silenced? Nothing was proven, but it was just one more mystery surrounding the company. There were also rumors of Foundation employees filming pornography in their off hours, but the truth was even more sordid, according to a report in Slate:

The foundation happily cooperated with the police when approached to record homosexual acts by upstanding citizens in public lavatories. It’s a priceless irony...that the scandal that later rocked the Highway Safety Foundation, the apparently baseless reports that it was staging and filming orgies, was the upshot of that widely circulated lavatory footage: In destroying the reputations of private citizens, Wayman and company mortally injured their own.

By this point, Wayman had had enough of traffic safety. He left Ohio for good in the ’70s after a disastrous telethon hosted by Wayman and Sammy Davis Jr. ended up costing the Foundation more than the two brought in. He ended up heading to California and going on to become Davis Jr.’s manager. The company continued to make films, including a pretty disturbing one about how to avoid pedophiles, but the company petered out before the 1980s could dawn.

The films of the Highway Safety Foundation still hold all their punch decades later. There is something pornographic about their Grindhouse aesthetic. Like a snuff film, you’re seeing something you shouldn’t see. You’re very aware of it, but you can’t turn away.

One particular moment stands out to me. In Hell’s Highway, an old Foundation employee points out a particular scene which showed the very moment a young man took his last breath after being pulled from a grisly trucking accident. The documentary cuts to the scene, showing police pry the blue body of a trucker, crushed by his trailer’s load, out of the destroyed cab.

The young man is somehow still alive when he’s placed on a stretcher. The camera hold on his mangled body as his chest rises, then falls, then rises again, only to come to a shuttering stop in front of a Highway Foundation’s camera. The exploitation of that moment is as unsettling as the blood and twisted metal.