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Scared into Submission: PSAs and School Safety Films

Crank directed me to this bizarre PSA called "And One Got Fat."

I remember a lot of those "educational" videos of the era; they all had the Leave it to Beaver type music and some ominous, yet giggle-inducing message (with the exception of this "stranger danger" film, which was shown in our school - the ending left us all horrified).

We saw a variety of PSAs and safety films back in the 70's, some on tv and some in the classroom. They ranged from hemophilia awareness (I'll never forget that kid with the kitchen knife), to drugs (the marijuana danger PSAs were unintentionally hilarious (I learned it from YOU, ok??, to stay in school messages, from instructions on using fallout shelters to the perils of driving.

Ah, yes. The driver's ed films. Gore, blood, scare tactics. Highway Safety Films Project/Mechanized Death! commemorates all of that and more.

I took driver's ed in 1979, the beginning of my senior year in high school. The class met two days a week after school, one day for driving and one day for classroom lecture.

The classroom lecture consisted mostly of us watching films while the instructor, Mr D. (who was also our history teacher) used his pointer to draw attention to the finer points of the film. He banged the screen with that wooden stick enough that he there were several holes in it by the end of the semester. He took his driving seriously. Mr. D was all about the dangers that lurked on the roadways. Apparently, death and mayhem were waiting to greet us at every turn.

The first film we saw that year would later be referred to as "The Box of Death." It was animated, as most of the gore-fest driver's ed films were, and starred a crudely drawn teenager driving a sports car. The teen is speeding down a residential street when he approaches a box in the middle of the road. Just a big, white cardboard box sitting in the middle of a side street. A bubble pops up above the teen's head, cartoon style, and in it we see the teen is thinking of his two choices in the situation: drive around the box (good choice) or drive over the box (bad choice). Cheesy music plays. Tension abounds. The teen guns the engine and goes for it.

At this point Mr. D. stops the film.
"What do you think is going to happen here, class?"
"Uhh...hes going to hit the box..."
"YES!" Pointer smacks screen. "He is going to hit the box! Because he has MADE THE WRONG CHOICE!" Each word brings a smack of the pointer. The flimsly screen sways. "Would you like to see what happens? Are you ready to see where a bad choice can lead you?" We begin to think he is reading from the same script as the police officer who came to warn us, a bit late, about drugs. Those of us who aren't already asleep encourage him to play the rest of the film.

Our speeding teenager who made the wrong choice continues down the road, hell bent on running down that mysterious box. He hits it with a loud thud, and the box goes flying in the air. It lands on the sidewalk. The teen gets out of the car and stand there with a Home Alone look of surprise on his face. He walks to the box, where it rests upside down and battered, and carefully lifts it up. I don't know what we expected to see. Garbage or soda cans or even homeless kitties. But, no...we see an arm. A small child's cartoon arm sticking out of the box, looking somewhat bruised and bloody.

Instead of recoiling in horror and shame, we burst out laughing.

"Is there something funny about a dead child?" Mr. D is not happy with us.
We giggle uncontrollably. A kid was the last thing we expected to be in the box. Why? Because it's incredibly absurd. Someone comments that if a kid was hiding in a cardboard box in the middle of the road, he sort of deserves to be hit by a car. Mr. D. threatens us all with driver's ed failure. Then he lectures on The Box.

"That box could be filled with anything. Leaves, children, bricks!" We are rolling on the floor now. We have no idea what box he is talking about. For as long as all of us have lived on this earth, none of us have ever come across a cardboard box, empty or filled with small children, in the middle of the road. We make jokes about brick-filled boxes. We make bad puns revolving around kids named Jack (jack-in-the-box...get it?). Mr. D. realizes lecturing on The Box is useless. He warns us that the films we will see in the coming weeks will make The Box look like a comic book.

We spend the subsequent lecture days in a dark classroom, projector rolling and Mr. D. banging the pointer around. We see school buses imploding. Cars going off cliffs. Rag doll bodies being thrown through car windshields. Corpses, brains, body parts and crying teenagers, all ketchup and fake goo and Jamie Lee Curtis caliber screaming, set to a 70's soundtrack that sounds as if it were ripped from a porn film. They had titles like "Death Never Takes a Holiday" and "Mechanized Death" and "Blood on the Highway" and we began to look forward to these films the way we looked forward to watching horror movies at Mike's house on Friday nights.

These films became the Reefer Madness of driving culture. Instead of scaring us as they were intended to do, they served as pure entertainment. There were kids who weren't even taking driver's ed and would sneak into our classroom just to see "When Death Comes Driving."

We were sad when the semester ended and our car crash gorefest was over. We all passed Mr. D.'s class with flying colors, most likely because didn't want to see us in his classroom again the next semester. We were the kids who laughed at death.

I'm sure Mr. D. would be happy to know that all these years later, I still think of him every time I see a box in the road.


Do you remember any of the PSAs or safety films of your youth? No one but me seems to remember the hemophilia PSA, but there probably isn't a soul alive who doesn't have the "this is your brain" ad etched in their head forever.


Plenty of old PSAs, including driver's ed films, at the Prelinger Archives:


Yea, that's where my first three links come from.

The best (?) one I saw up in Canada was called "Hamburger Highway." Nowadays you can see more gore than that on any episode of "Trauma: Life in the ER," but back in the 70's it was pretty surprising to see real injured people covered in real blood.

The driver ed films with Mr. Rellik - that's 'Killer' spelled backwards - were a hoot. I

An odd traffic safety film I recall from 'the day' is one that dealt with train safety, the peril of kid's crossing railroad tracks.

The best line from the movie was this:

"Little Jimmy was late taking the shortcut across the tracks to get to his house ... the train was on time."

Cut to a scene of an ambulance next to the train tracks with a child-sized lump covered by a tarp on the ground.

See, I knew you could do more with this than I could.

My Driver's Ed class consisted entirely of my high school's football coach telling us hair-raising stories of his own (bad) driving experiences: running red lights at 100mph, falling asleep behind the wheel and running off the road, car overheating in the middle of the Lincoln Tunnel. Great stuff.

It wasn't a PSA, but I recall a driver's ed film where the guy insisted on given everyone "a friendly toot to let them know we are here". Our instructor warned us that we were never to use the horn that much.

I was once at a school assembly where a former cop talked about drug use and its consequences. Some of the things he said were downright hilarious. Every time we laughed, he'd get upset and say "That's not funny, that's SAAAAAD!"

The MST3K shorts videos are great for some of the older educational videos.

Napping through filmstrips...sigh...good times.

Hey, you may think your driver's ed instructors were strange, but at leat their rants are vaguely, umm, related to driving. I got treated to stories about drinking contests at Polish weddings and a guy who got his leg blown off in Korea and had phantom pains.

The only driving-related thing I remember is him telling us everyone needs to always drive in the right lane at all times, even if there are five lanes going in each direction, that just means one driving lane and four lanes for passing. I'm not sure whether anyone believed him on that; I hope not.

I co-sponsored/MC'd a series of propaganda films at the college this spring, and one entire evening was dedicated to driver's ed/patriotism/social hygiene films like these. It took a little while, but the kids finaly dug it.

And Michele, we played the film on cafeteria behavior that starred a puppet named Mr. Bungle in your honor. I was adamant about including that one, even if it had been on Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

That rocks, Warren!!

When I was in H.S., they were still playing the real (non-animated) movies. Stuff like, "Blood Alley," and "Code 30" (the Ohio State Patrol code for a fatal accident.)

Lots of totaled cars and mangled bodies. They were made in the fifties, and they always had the very serious, overweight, middle-aged State Trooper with horn-rimmed glasses who talked very slowly, because obviously, you were all moronic teenagers.

I don't remember a safety film warning that a dirt bike could total my Oldsmobile -- which happened yesterday. By some bizarre miracle, the bike rider walked away without a scratch.

OMG!!! In that Stanger Danger one.. I can't believe they showed actual footage of the girls that had been killed!!!
No wonder you were terrified! that's WAY worse than Bambi's mom being shot!

my dad was a driver's ed teacher. holeeee cow.

In my Driver's Ed class (circa 1982) we used electronic automobile simulators. They cost the school district a bundle some time back in the 1970's. There were ten driver's seats complete with a dashboard, steering wheel, and pedals, all taken from an early 1970's GM car. You sat in the seats and "drove" your simulator while watching a 16mm film projected on a screen in front of the room. The film used a mechanized synch track to synch all of the simulators together with the film. The film soundtrack made an annoying thump-thump-thump sound due to the synching system. A primitive computer recorded your every move and you recieved a score based on how well you "drove."

Not sure if this is a good memory or not, but thanks for bringing it back. Also, we called them "stimulators" instead of simulators. Oh, the cleverness of the 15 year old mind.

Also, if memory serves me right, Something Weird Video had two or three volumes of Classroom Scare Films available some time ago. Not sure if they are still in print.