Imagine a tenderfoot in the mid1960’s. No, a literal Tenderfoot – that would be me, 11 years old, a fledgling Boy Scout and member of Troop 59, Deerfield, NY. We are sponsored by the Deerfield Volunteer Fire Department, and our meetings are held in their cavernous firehouse on Trenton Road. Tonight, instead of learning new knots or working with topographical maps, we’ll be watching a film. The clattery 16mm projector and screen are already set up, and there’s a palpable buzz in the air. Though this is all new to me, the older Scouts in the room are familiar with this. It is, in fact, an annual tradition – a highly anticipated one.
We are about to watch Signal 30.
For the next 28 minutes, this small group of impressional boys witnesses actual decapitation, bodies burned beyond recognition and crumbling apart, as well as footage of real victims of the most gruesome, explicitly gory violence.
No, our Scoutmaster hadn’t lost his mind – but he may have displayed questionable judgement. Signal 30 is, believe it or not, an educational film, created in 1959 by the Highway Safety Foundation. It was widely shown to high school students across the country throughout the 1960s, usually during school assemblies and in Drivers Ed classes. It was produced by Richard Wayman and narrated by Wayne Byers, and takes its moniker from the radio code used by troopers and dispatchers in the Ohio State Highway Patrol: “Signal 30” meant a fatal traffic accident.
Watching Signal 30 was usually a traumatic, “scared straight” experience for high-school age kids. The reaction among pre-teen boys was something different entirely. We loved it. It became an annual highlight of Troop 59’s year. We couldn’t wait for the next showing to roll around. Are any of you old enough to recall watching Signal 30 in school? Did your Scout troop ever show it to its members?
Signal 30 caused its share of controversy, but managed to garner critical praise, as well. It even went on to win a National Safety Council Award, and spurred a rash of copycat films, including two sequels, with names like Red Asphalt, Mechanized Death, and Wheels of Tragedy. It effectively birthed a genre that culminated in the grotesque Faces of Death series in the late 1970’s.
The vintage stills and 8mm footage seen in Signal 30 predate the era of mandatory seat belts. Cars were built huge and heavy, with plenty of sharp-edged Detroit iron and no notion of crumple zones, safety glass, or shock-absorbing bumpers. Hell, even glove boxes flipped down in those days, presenting a handy cup holder that doubled as a lacerating metal blade in a crash. (My own father lost his spleen to such a glove box door.) Consequently, if you got in a wreck in a car back then, the situation could become dire – even fatal – very quickly.