by Susan Starr and Kevin Kocur
Hell’s Highway is a history of highway safety films focusing on the Highway Safety Foundation, which made short educational films, mostly promoting driver safety. The Highway Safety Foundation was started when a few photographers in Mansfield, Ohio began hunting down accident sites and taking pictures of the carnage. Eventually the photographers got together and began making short films. These films were staples of drivers ed courses from the 50s to the 70s. The films have sensational names like Mechanized Death and Wheels of Tragedy. They all seem to have similar formats. Good people with families and futures are happily driving along, going about their business, until a moment’s carelessness sends them to a gory, mutilated, dismembered end. We know that the end was gory, mutilated and dismembered because all the films have actual shots of accident victims. There is only one blurry shot of a motorcycle accident. I guess that means motorcycles are safer than cars.
The documentary has comments from adults who grew up watching the shorts and interviews with two of the photographers who made the films. The two photographers say their mission was to show the consequences of unsafe driving but I couldn’t help thinking they just wanted to get cool pictures of blood and guts. I found the accident footage hard to watch. Although most of the shots are less gory than what you’d see in your average horror movie I was affected by knowing that the footage was real. Those are real dead bodies, real detatched limbs and crushed skulls.
The first half of the documentary is funny and interesting. You have to laugh at the dramatic footage accompanied by monotone, deadpan narration. It reminds me of Ben Stein on The Wonder Years although set to overly dramatic music. They also show clips from some of the educational films done on teen social behavior like The Snob about a girl who thinks she is so much better than everyone else at a party that she refused to dance with anyone (I’d love to see a DVD of these films). The second half of the documentary is slow and considerably less entertaining. It centers around rumored scandals at the Highway Safety Foundation (they made porno films!) and a controversial educational film about child molestation (how to avoid molesters, not how to be one). As horrifying and entertaining as the highway safety films are, I doubt they really improve driver safety. I tried my own experiment. After a particularly gory accident was shown I told Kevin that could be him if he didn’t slow down when he was riding. Since he just gave me a dirty look and ignored me I don’t think he will be changing his behavior.
Ahhhh the old Traffic Safety films. I wasn’t brought up in the 50’s. I wasn’t born until the 60’s so I missed out on the good, clean, wholesome fun of gory info films. Yes, I understand the purported shock value that these films were suppose to install in the minds of hapless teens. I fondly remember the “urban legends” about films so gross that the schools allegedly put buckets in the classroom aisles in case the teen viewers needed to relief themselves of the cafeteria’s Daily Special of Salisbury steak. Never saw ’em. By the time I learned to drive the safety films were of a kinder gentler variety. I actually saw more graphic films in Biology class….
The bike footage only amounts to one scene involving a motorcycle and a train (train won) and the obligitory HD Police bike at another scene.
The DVD we watched was actually a two disc set that included not only the documentary, but 3 complete driver’s ed shorts consisting of 1959’s Signal 30 (Ohio State Patrol’s code for a vehicular fatality) 1969’s Highways Of Agony and the 1979 classic Options To Live. The documentary includes excerpts from driver’s ed cult hits such as Death On The Highway and The Third Killer (honestly, I’m not making these titles up.) The shorts were worth watching but I can’t say the same about the rest of the film.
Sadly, the DVD case makes this out to be a romping good time waxing nostalgically about the cheesy 50’s-60’s driver’s ed shock films, but in reality it’s a documentary that peters out too early in the film and sporadically injects gory crash scenes in an attempt to keep the viewer awake.
Look for cameos by recklessly-driving-teenager Dick York (in a film entitled Teenicide!) “The Honorable” Ronald Reagan (presumably as Gov of California) and Sonny Bono (doing a film warning of the effects of pot smoking!)
I can only recommend this film if you’re A) really into graphic scenes involving dead bodies in various states or B) really looking to score points with the Goth chick/dude you hooked up with at the bar last night. In all sincerity, please ride safe out there. I’ve seen enough carnage for one night, thank you.