Skip to main content

2.4: Highway as Death Machine

Machine: Road safety films, JG Ballard, and the New Dromology of the killing machine.

Published onJun 04, 2021
2.4: Highway as Death Machine

Highway as Death Machine

Soft Bodies, Fast Machines

Even while General Motors and Ford continued to make use of the grand, sweeping aesthetic and “new horizons” narrative (both spatial and economic) of Geddes’ Futurama to encourage the building of new roads, another kind of highway narrative was unfolding. With the wider availability of cars in the 1950s and a rapidly expanding consumer economy enabling the purchase of cars, public attention turned to more intimate aspects of the relationship between humans and the road: in particular, the deadly combination of fast machines and soft bodies. This anxiety expressed itself in public safety messages that took for granted the validity of car culture, placing the onus on drivers and pedestrians to conform to road rules, rather than requiring roads and cars to conform to a human scale of living. The message in driver-safety films and advertisements from this era was clear: not only must one adapt to this “new odology” in order to participate in social and economic life, but that adaptation must extend to one’s physical behaviors.

From the beginning highways were built with safety in mind and included wide, sweeping curves, banked lanes, broad medians, and the elimination of cross-traffic (though these features were as much about increasing speed and managing flow as they were about safety). Cars in the 1950s, however, lacked the modern safety features of today’s automobiles: seatbelts, tempered glass, airbags. Heavy, rigid frames meant lower crash energy absorption. As a result, traffic fatalities began to rise dramatically in the 1950s, reaching all-time highs in the mid-1960s (exceeding 50,000 in 1966) before they began to decline (initially, most likely, because fewer cars were traveling fewer miles during the 1970s OPEC oil embargo, and later because of new developments in automotive safety) (Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities). Without these modern safety features, responsibility fell on human operators and, increasingly, on pedestrians to keep people safe.

Patty Learns to Stop, Look, and Listen (1947), one of the Frith Films’ “Patty” safety series for schoolchildren, provides interesting insight into the values developing along with Americans’ conformity to new roads and faster cars. Five-year-old Patty (Patty Garmin, the filmmaker’s niece) is a precocious child who lives an idyllic existence on a dairy farm in California’s San Fernando Valley. Patty’s family is clearly a recent beneficiary of improved roads; they have just moved from an older, more isolated farm to a newer, larger goat farm: an example of the “new horizons” opening up for farmers who now had improved access to reliable transportation. The lively Patty is shown playing with goats and enjoying a healthy, prosperous life on the farm.

But Patty is about to become a victim of the new odology. While playing in the road with her older brother she is hit by a car and promptly finds herself entering into a peculiar new kind of “machine:” a growing infrastructure designed not for transportation but for dealing with the effects of it.

“Patty’s happy life on the farm . . . until . . .” Patty Learns to Stop, Look and Listen. 1947. Frith Films. Prelinger Archives.

This machine includes human elements—policemen, ambulance drivers, nurses—and technological ones—the emergency ambulance kit, the siren, and the traction machine. The film, aimed at young schoolchildren, not only teaches them not to play in the street (lest they enter into this machine); it also demystifies many of the technological elements, explaining what is in the emergency kit, how policemen investigate the accident, how traction works, and how long the process of recovery takes.

“If only children would not play in the street!” Patty Learns to Stop, Look and Listen. 1947. Frith Films. Prelinger Archives.

After months of recovery during which she passes through many stages of the machine—surgery to set the bones, traction, hospital life, at home but immobilized by casts, and finally getting about on crutches—Patty is able to return to her comfortable, natural farm life. But the lesson she has so painfully learned is unavoidable: stay out of the way of cars or you’ll be integrated into this new, alienating technological environment the hard way.

Patty is inducted into the machinery of modern life. Stills from Patty Learns to Stop, Look and Listen. 1947. Frith Films. Prelinger Archives.

Not only did pedestrians have to accept their new role in the highway machine, but drivers too. GM’s Your Permit to Drive (1951, General Motors Photographic) is narrated by the “voice” of a driver’s permit. Montages of happy people driving through urban and rural landscapes, from ocean to ocean, entice would-be motorists with the promise of the freedom of the road, even while the narrator’s voice notes that access to this wondrous world is controlled by a piece of paper.

But this permit is not just a ticket to ride. It is a document designed to control the actions of drivers.

Your Permit to Drive. 1951. General Motors Photographic. Prelinger Archives.

The talking permit goes on to lay out for new drivers both the discipline required and the consequences of a lapse in judgment. This necessary conformity was couched not so much in technical terms as in morality. After stating that “I am your permit, your license, your permission to drive. I am a privilege, and an obligation. Your obligation to drive skillfully, carefully, and legally,” the film shows a driver running into a car that has pulled out unexpectedly from a cross street. The traffic light, made to control drivers but now flashing in alarm, morphs into the ambulance light. “This year,” the narrator warns, “there will again be thousands of innocent victims of those who will not recognize this obligation.”

Your Permit to Drive. 1951. General Motors Photographic. Prelinger Archives.

Films focusing on road safety suggested that if drivers and pedestrians took responsibility and conformed themselves to the rules of the road they would be able to lead happy, productive lives on the farm or traveling through the heartland of America; if they did not adapt, they would be crushed.

Stills from Signal 30. 1959. Highway Safety Films Inc. for Ohio State Highway Patrol. Dir. Richard Wayman. Prelinger Archives.

Driving on the superhighway raised the stakes for those who failed to adapt to highway speeds. While intersections and pedestrians had been eliminated, new dangers appeared, facilitated by the design of the highway itself: notably, the new science of fitting in to high-speed traffic using merging lanes, turn signals, and on-ramps. The same year as the 1965 Futurama II exhibit went on display, Disney’s Freewayphobia, or the Art of Driving the Super Highway (1965) featured the cartoon dog, Goofy, as a driver learning to handle the freeway to great comic effect. The film shows Goofy in three character roles: as an overly cautious, an overly aggressive, and finally an inattentive driver. The first of these is featured in a sequence in which “Driverius timidicus” is unable to use an on-ramp to get on the freeway because he is too afraid of the high-speed traffic. Cartoon images of his fear and his inability to merge (leaving him left stranded at a stop on the on-ramp) play upon drivers’ anxieties about the high-speed traffic and the perceived fragility of the human (or in this case, dog) body. In the sequel to Freewayphobia, Goofy’s Freeway Troubles (1965), Goofy plays the role of “Stupidicus ultimus,” a driver doing everything wrong on the freeway, including falling asleep at the wheel (a mistake aptly referred to as the “turnpike trance”).

Both of these cartoons were played regularly at Driver’s Education classes alongside more gruesome films such as Signal 30 (1959) and Mechanized Death (1961), which showed would-be drivers close-up photographs and film footage of injuries and car crashes, the assumption being that it was not the high speeds of the superhighway itself or the design of its on-ramps and curves but rather the poor skill and inattention of motorists that were to blame for freeway death tolls. Thus was set up an opposition—between the “bad” pedestrians and drivers who would be punished for their transgressions, and the “good” highway that created opportunities to travel and live better lives.

The New Dromology of Death

Road safety films point to a specific shift in representations of the highway starting in the 1950s and 60s: from Jackson’s odological approach, concerned primarily with the efficient organization of space, to what Paul Virilio calls “dromology,” the science of speed. If odology is about the tension between centripetal and centrifugal highways—between roads that navigated the local landscape and those that created a powerful network that constituted “a disregard of local landscape features” (Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape 23)—dromology is about the complete collapse of space through speed, what Virilio calls “the negation of space” (149). Along with this technologically driven negation of space comes the negation of the human body, so that “[t]o invent the family automobile is to produce the pile-up on the highway” (10).

Road safety films represented a fissure in the early dream of the perfected highway. The 1964-1965 World’s Fair exhibition of the Futurama II had chosen to ignore the movement from odology to dromology, clinging instead to 1939’s original “Futurama” narrative and its insistence on superhighways as a safer infrastructure for drivers. But the new dromology ditched the landscape altogether, instead aligning speed with the immediate satisfaction of consumer desires. Science fiction author J.G. Ballard observes that

. . . the car crash differs from other disasters in that it involves the most powerfully advertised commercial product of this century, an iconic entity that combines the elements of speed, power, dream and freedom within a highly stylized format that defuses any fears we may have of the inherent dangers of these violent and unstable machines. (97)

Thus car advertising of the 50s and 60s associated speed with comfort and luxury, attempting to cover over the horrifying spectacles featured in road-safety shock films such as Signal 30 and Mechanized Death that pointed to the deadly dark side of the American autopia.

J.G. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

I: Atrocity Exhibition

Just five years after the end of the second Futurama exhibition, J.G. Ballard penned The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), a dreamlike and fractured representation of the consequences of this new dromology brought about by auto-mobility. Ballard’s narratives present near-future highways as the ultimate death machine, not just for transgressors of the road-safety code, but for everybody. These highways are realized in the nightmarish qualities of an abstract system Ballard called “Autogeddon.” In The Atrocity Exhibition, the highway is refigured as a network of sex and death. No longer able to retain its appeal as a glorious vision of a streamlined future, the highway has become, by 1970, a gruesome expression of the contradictions inherent in the fetishization of “violent and unstable machines.” The Atrocity Exhibition describes a dromological world in which human existence is experienced as an extended moment: a car crash that never ends but endlessly repeats. In what is perhaps an inevitable culmination of humankind’s adaptation to speed, people and highways are no longer distinguishable: in Ballard’s Autogeddon, the highway has taken on the properties of a biological body—not just the arterial metaphor, but the “skeleton” of the road itself:

Waking: the concrete embankment of a motorway extension. Roadworks, cars drumming two hundred yards below. In the sunlight the seams between the sections are illuminated like the sutures of an exposed skull. (31)

The book iterates through road accidents, dismemberments, and cut-up women’s bodies to create a crash future with distinctly filmic qualities: “Sequence in slow motion: a landscape of highways and embankments, evening light of fading concrete, intercut with images of a young woman’s body” (72). Aside from the troubling gender implications, Ballard’s Autogeddon offers a disturbing vision of a near-future in which human bodies and machines are inextricably connected by the vertiginous speed of the automobile.

The machine as body: “Arterial” interchange. Arroyo Seco Parkway Interchange. Photo by Brian Grogan/HAER. Library of Congress.

II: Crash

Ballard’s collapse of space and time comes closer to the forefront in the novel Crash (1973). In the surreal landscape of the highways surrounding Shepperton (an airport suburb surrounded by London’s answer to the Beltway system), Ballard taps into the ultimate fear of every commuter: the “end of the world by automobile” (50). Space and time in Crash are determined by the intimate interior of the smashed-up automobile, “fossilized for ever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass” (12).

In a novel where space and time are conquered by dromology, the car is secondary to the space in which it exists: the highway system itself. In fact, Ballard suggests, “[t]he ultimate concept car will move so fast, even at rest, as to be invisible” (98). On the highways time stops: “Looking around, I had the impression that all the cars on the highway were stationary, the spinning earth racing beneath them to create an illusion of movement” (196). In this transformation of the highway into a flattened moment out of time, Ballard creates a stylized tableau owing much to the deco-perfect diorama of Geddes’ Futurama.

In Crash he characterizes the architecture of the highway as a kind of perfect mesh of nature and machine: “Along the elegant motion sculpture of the concrete highway the coloured carapaces of the thousands of cars moved like the welcoming centaurs of some Arcadian land” (166). This scene, calling to mind the tiny colored cars racing through Futurama’s idyllic country landscape, is populated with cars reveling in pure speed with an animal-like innocence: “The marker-lines diving and turning formed a maze of white snakes, writhing as they carried the wheels of the cars crossing their backs, as delighted as dolphins” (196).

Such scenes, however, are far removed from the clean and gentle spaces in Geddes’ futurism-inspired diorama. The dreamy, perfected landscapes of the Futurama and Motorama have become haunted by a sense that death by automobile is inevitable; the novel’s protagonist, James Ballard, describes the crushed post-accident interior of his car as “the perfect module for all the quickening futures of my life” (69). For Ballard’s protagonist, the highway is a landscape bloodied by the dead and the future-dead:

In our wounds we celebrated the re-birth of the traffic-slain dead, the deaths and injuries of those we had seen dying by the roadside and the imaginary wounds and postures of the millions yet to die. (203)

The novel’s often uncomfortably graphic portrayal of a character’s obsession with recording car crashes and their effects on the human body can be read as a gloss for a larger concern about the effects of technological intensification. Ballard’s wish, as he makes explicit in his introduction to the French edition, is that Crash be read as “cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape” (6).

III: Elizabeth Taylor and the Mechanical Bride

As well as being a general “cautionary” tale against the new landscapes of auto-centric culture, Crash is notable for its explorations of the sexualized effects of dromology on the human body. The narrator, a television commercial producer, is involved in a serious car crash in which another man dies. In the novel, James attempts to come to terms with his reconfigured, post-crash existence (marked by physical injury, a renewed sexual interest in his wife, and the constant, sexualized presence of the wife of the man he has killed). James’ new identity is structured through his relationships with a car crash stuntman named Seagrave and a disfigured ex-television personality named Vaughan, both of whom are sexually stimulated by the stylized conjunctions of the women’s bodies and cars they witness at accident scenes: the cut-up assemblages of a female hand, steering wheel, arm, window, leg.

The association of sexual desire and automobiles was not new. As early as 1951, Marshall McLuhan had noted that a component of postwar responses to machines reflected an “interfusion of sex and technology” in advertising that went beyond the simple use of attractive women to sell cars (94). On the one hand, women were paraded and displayed with cars in such a way that a car became like a beautiful woman, with its soft interiors and desirable status markers. But, McLuhan argued, cars also stood in for a deeper desire to form an intimate connection with the machines themselves, a desire to become part of the mechanism of modern technology:

It is not a feature created by the ad men, but it seems rather to be born of a hungry curiosity to explore and enlarge the domain of sex by mechanical technique, on one hand, and, on the other, to possess machines in a sexually gratifying way. (The Mechanical Bride 94)

Machine as body: the soft interior of the mechanical bride. Still from Look at Pontiac for 1954! 1953. Handy (Jam) Organization. Prelinger Archives.

Machine as body: penetrating the engine. Still from Look at Pontiac for 1954! 1953. Handy (Jam) Organization. Prelinger Archives.

This sexual component of the link between cars and women, according to McLuhan, is not only the dream that a car can be like a woman but also that a woman could be like a car, a “mechanical bride” produced on the “love-goddess assembly line” (93). Women are drawn into the assemblage of machines and scientific technologies in such a way that they become merely a marker of, rather than the object of, the masculine desire to possess technology so that “[g]irls become intoxicating ‘dates’ when they are recognizable parts of a vast machine” (96).

But the collapsed space of the car crash intrudes on this dream of the perfect machine. McLuhan notes that the fusion of sex and technology that constitutes the mechanical bride is surrounded by “images of hectic speed, mayhem, violence, and sudden death” (98). The irony of desiring to plug into a machine is that desire is not satisfied, but merely displaced:

. . . for those for whom the sex act has come to seem mechanical and merely the meeting and manipulation of body parts, there often remains a hunger which can be called metaphysical but which is not recognized as such, and which seeks satisfaction in physical danger, or sometimes torture, suicide, or murder. (100)

In The Mechanical Bride McLuhan shows that there is a kind of inherent violence in the technological visualization/objectification of a woman’s body, both in our everyday lives and in the less overt but still overwhelmingly present sexist conventions of television and billboard advertising. But in Crash, we find this violence made literal. The victims are women who are physically cut up in automobile accidents in the same way that they are metaphorically cut up in photography and Western art more generally: carefully cropped images of parts of hands, skin, face, leg, or arm.  Seagrave, the stunt-driver, fondly imagines film stars being “forced to crash their own stunt-cars” (103), starting with the film star Elizabeth Taylor, about whom he comments gleefully, “I can see those big tits cut up on the dash” (95).

James’ own relationships, too, are mediated by disturbing gendered observations: “At one time Catherine’s body lying beside me in bed had seemed as inert and emotionless as a sexual exercise doll fitted with a neoprene vagina” (51).  This imagination of the woman’s body as a “thing” is subjugated to a wider recognition that, in the face of Ballard’s Autogeddon, we are all just “things.” James imagines himself as “a huge jointed doll, one of those elaborate humanoid dummies fitted with every conceivable orifice and pain response” (40).  At the same time Ballard’s point that we are all “cut up” in some form must be read with some attention to the gendered ways in which this process is actually manifested.  Both male and female bodies may be “things” in Ballard’s account, but it is more often than not the female body on which this intuition is so graphically inscribed.

The contradiction identified by McLuhan—the desire to become part of a perfectly functioning machine only to discover that it is requires violence to fulfill that desire—is manifested in Crash in the character of Vaughan, a man who, in the wake of a motorcycle accident that has disfigured him and cost him his career, has become obsessed with car crashes and their after-effects. He is represented as a cut-up version of his former self: “his features looked as if they had been displaced laterally, reassembled after the crash from a collection of faded publicity photos” (64).  In what is perhaps an attempt to get himself back to an imaginary wholeness (at least of body) he is, quite literally, an ambulance-chaser, appearing as if by magic at the scenes of automobile accidents with camera in hand, recording the gruesome damage to body and car. These assemblages are, in turn, reassembled by Vaughan into the film reels and photograph albums he prizes.

The chief object of Vaughan’s fascination is Elizabeth Taylor, currently residing in London to film a series of television advertisements for American cars. Taylor is the very embodiment of the dark side of the mechanical bride: Vaughan imagines her as a “death-borne Aphrodite” crowned with a “coronation of wounds” planned and imagined “with the erotic tenderness of a long-separated lover” (7-8).  She is described as the queen of the car wreck, posed during film shooting “like a deity occupying a shrine readied for her in the blood of a minor member of her congregation” (109).

Vaughan’s obsession, though, goes well beyond her immediate involvement with movies involving car crashes. In his mind, Taylor is the supreme embodiment, not only of female perfection (celebrity status), but the perfection he knew as a celebrity before his own accident, a perfection that might have allowed him one day to move in the same social circles. Thus he is obsessed with the idea of orchestrating her death by automobile to achieve a meticulously imagined conjunction of flesh and metal. His fascination with her sexual practices suggests that his own sexual desire for her, which can never be fulfilled because of his own mutilation, has been transmuted into his plans to orchestrate a car crash instead, to become, in effect, part of a perfect technological assemblage in the only way he can now imagine. As Stephen Metcalf notes, “crash is followed by reconstruction . . . the subject is diffused across a virtual machine” (147). Following the logic of McLuhan’s “mechanical bride,” women must be cut apart in order for the machine of modern technological life to be put back together.

Ballard’s work lays out in all-too-visceral imagery what has become of Geddes’ perfect highway, a position that has been the focal point for much criticism. In a provocative commentary in Science Fiction Studies in 1991, for example, Jean Baudrillard claimed Crash as a singularly amoral novel, a work which in its hyperrealism “is simply fascinating, without this fascination implying any kind of value judgement whatsoever” (319).

The family automobile and the killing machine. “1996 Dodge Grand Caravan into deformable flat barrier, 34.8 mph.” U.S. Department of Transportation/Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. Internet Archive.

In the skirmish that followed, invited respondents, including N. Katherine Hayles and David Porush, argued that Ballard’s explicit linkages of sex, death, and flight did, in fact, point to a profoundly moral sensibility of the dangers of an uncritical belief in technological transcendence (Hayles, 323; Porush, 323). In later commentary on the debate, Bradley Butterfield pointed out that this debate had been polarized around a distinction between aestheticism and moralism which does not hold, and suggested that instead:

Ballard’s and Baudrillard’s aestheticism claims social relevance by demonstrating in guerilla fashion interventions whereby one fiction is played against another as a means of challenging the darkest secrets and silent hopes of the social imaginary. (74)

Both Butterfield and Baudrillard make claims for Ballard’s work as an example of a “crash aesthetic” in which violent and sexual acts are made clinical in order to provide us with an understanding of those “darkest secrets.”

Perhaps, though, Ballard’s novels are better thought of as a response to the impulses so clearly laid out by McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride: a world in which cultural narratives are driven by human adaptation to the modern machine and not the other way around. Rather than existing on an axis between moralism and aestheticism, or as examples of “guerilla interventions,” Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition point out the ways in which the very creation of auto-mobility, the infrastructure of car culture itself, creates violence against the human body, echoing Virilio’s claim that “to invent the family automobile is to invent the pile-up on the freeway.” Indeed, recurring images of children, such as Patty, broken by car wrecks suggest a “family dimension” absent in Ballard’s gruesome technological landscapes.

Crash test dolly: A child’s toy in the aftermath of an automobile accident. Still from Anatomy of an Accident. 1961. Jerry Fairbanks Productions. Prelinger Archives.

A compelling companion to the mechanical bride is the “mechanical mother,” the female crash test dummy that poses with her “family” in U.S. Department of Transportation photographs alongside her plastic children. Chilling crash test footage showing unrestrained women and children dummies suggest that the mechanisms of driving (speed, restraints, road curvature, and airbags)—rather than morality—are determining factors in automobile injuries. Thus, despite the message in road safety films such as Patty Learns to Stop, Look, and Listen and Signal 30 that the driver and pedestrian are to blame for automobile accidents, the narrative paths down which they travel are defined by the physical shape of the road and the speed of the vehicle. Geddes’ superhighway, designed for safety, has instead become a dromological killing machine.

Body as machine: Children and families. “Hybrid III” family of crash test dummies. US Department of Transportation. Wikimedia Commons.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) was a British science fiction novelist and short story writer. He is the author of many novels, including The Drowned World (1962), The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and Super-Cannes (2000).

Ballard’s works are characterized by their dystopian nature and their exploration of the dark side of technological progress and social/urban decay. Critic John Clute calls Ballard’s works “nightmares that haunt the waking hours of those writers who wish to go on believing in the virtues of material progress” (173), arguing that many of his later works, such as Crash, were not, or barely qualified as, science fiction. But Ballard’s argument that “[e]verything is becoming science fiction. . . . [F]rom the mar- gins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century” (Ballard 206) suggests a more expansive understanding of the increasingly close ties between everyday life and a life mediated by technology and technological effects.

His two most well-known works, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, have both been controversial. The Atrocity Exhibition was the subject of an obscenity trial in England for its essay entitled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” and its first print run was pulped by Doubleday in America; David Cronenberg’s 1996 film adaptation of Crash was criticized as a “pornographic” work, with Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard calling it “a movie beyond the bounds of depravity” (qtd. in Barker 174).

Further Reading

Ballard, J.G. “Fictions of Every Kind.” Review Esssay, 1971. Repr. in A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews. New York: Picador, 1996.

Barker, Martin, Jane Arthurs, and Ramaswami Harindranath. The Crash Controversy: Censorship Campaigns and Film Reception. London: Wallflower Press, 2001.

Clute, John. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1995.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


Dromology, from Greek dromos meaning “race,” is a term used in Speed & Politics: An Essay on Dromology by Paul Virilio to encapsulate the science or logic of speed. Virilio uses this “science” as a way to consider the ways speed and movement have come to compress space and time in modern life, aided by the acceleration of technological development. In particular, he looks at the “speed of logistics” as a defining force in warfare, arguing that “power is always the power to control a territory with messengers, modes of transportation and communication” (Politics 15). In simple terms, the speed at which we can communicate and/or transport bodies and machines across a space determines our use of it and our power over it.

In The Art of the Motor Virilio takes dromology to its ultimate conclusion with his analysis of the instantaneity of digital communication: “everything is already there, here and now, present and over at once, in the instantaneous apocalypse of messages and images” (92).


Virilio, Paul. The Art of the Motor. Trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

———. Politics of the Very Worst. New York: Semiotext(e), 1999.

———. Speed & Politics: An Essay on Dromology. Trans. Mark Polizotti. New York: Semio-text(e), 1986.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Signal 30

Signal 30, the Ohio State Highway Patrol radio code for a traffic fatality, is the title of one of the most iconic road safety films of the 1950s. Released in 1959 and shot in color on a handheld 16-millimeter camera, the film employs footage of real-life traffic accidents to shock viewers. As one of the defining films of the genre, Signal 30 reflects a contradiction at the heart of road safety education: Jeremy Packer notes that “[w]ell before outrage and social concern were generated by slasher films, blood and gore were used for pedagogical purposes and by extension to create, not destroy, civility . . . [In] a perverse way, the accident is the very means by which ‘mobility without mayhem’ comes into being” (15).

The film’s creator, Richard Wayman, a partner in Cleveland’s Ernst & Ernst accounting firm, was a regular at traffic accident scenes around Ohio, where he and his partner, Phyllis Vaughn, took photographs with the approbation of the Highway Patrol. In 1960 Wayman formed the Highway Safety Foundation, which produced several other road safety films: Mechanized Death (1961), Wheels of Tragedy (1963), and Highway of Agony (1969), all notable for their shocking footage and all widely used in traffic safety classrooms across the country. The Foundation would go on to produce a number of now classic “public safety” titles that remain popular among fans of cult film.


Packer, Jeremy. Mobility Without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008.

Smith, Ken. Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970. New York: Blast Books, 1999.

Image Credit

Signal 30. Prod. Highway Safety Films Inc. Dir. Richard Wayman. Ohio State Highway Patrol, 1959. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Freewayphobia and Goofy’s Freeway Troubles

Produced in 1965 by the Walt Disney Corporation, Freewayphobia or the Art of Driving on the Super Highway and Goofy’s Freeway Troubles are animated short films featuring Goofy as a bad driver who must learn to conform to road rules in order to drive safely on the new superhighways. The films combine live footage of highways with animated sequences showing Goofy attempting to merge into highway traffic, failing to brake, and changing lanes incorrectly.

Rather than focusing on the individuality narrative and the pleasures of driving, the films emphasize the crucial embeddedness of driving behavior in a complex human/ technological system. As A. Bowdoin Van Riper says,

Goofy sins . . . not against fellow motorists as individuals but against the community. The freeway system is efficient, but its efficiency is fragile: the selfish behavior of even a single driver is enough to temporarily bring the flow of traffic to a halt, making life worse for everyone. (109-10)

Further Reading and Viewing

Freewayphobia or the Art of Driving on the Super Highway. Dir. Les Clark. Associate Prod. Ken Peterson. Art Direction A. Kendall O’Connor. Walt Disney Corporation, 1965.

Goofy’s Freeway Troubles. Dir. Les Clark. Associate Prod. Ken Peterson. Art Direction A. Kendall O’Connor. Walt Disney Corporation, 1965.

Van Riper, A. Bowdoin. Learning from Mickey, Donald and Walt: Essays on Disney’s Edutainment Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.