NEW BEDFORD, MA– After months of eager anticipation, the second-period driver's-education class at Lincoln Memorial High School finally got to see the legendary highway safety film Wheels Of Tragedy Monday.
"Both my older brothers saw [Wheels Of Tragedy] when they took the class, so I knew I was probably gonna get to see it," sophomore Kevin Younkers said. "Mr. Fait held out for two months, though. He made us finish the entire workbook before showing it."
Purchased by the school in 1973, Wheels combines grisly footage of actual car wrecks with dramatic reenactments of safety missteps committed by the victims in their final minutes. Driver's-ed teacher Vernon Fait has shown the 22-minute, 16-millimeter film to every class since he began teaching the course in 1982.
Student reaction was positive.
"It was awesome," said Craig Martsch, 16. "There was one part where this woman turned around to yell at her kids in the back seat and–wham–she slammed right into an oncoming truck. It's not on the level of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or anything, but for something you see in school, it was pretty damn gory."
Martsch's viewing experience was enhanced by the horrified reaction of his peers.
"All these people, especially the girls, were screaming and covering their eyes," Martsch said. "My girlfriend Kirsten was totally white when they showed the brains oozing out of the driver's skull. I thought she was gonna spew all over. In the lunch room later that day, Jeff [Kahn] squeezed his hamburger and was like, 'Hey, Kirsten, does this remind you of anything?'"
Most Lincoln Memorial students have some awareness of Wheels Of Tragedy long before they see it.
"When I was a freshman, I had algebra with a bunch of sophomores," said Paige Wesley, 15. "One day, they all walked in totally freaking out over this movie they'd seen. I was like, 'What? What?' They were like, 'Sorry, you're just going to have to wait until next year.'"
Wheels Of Tragedy is just one of many short films produced in the '60s and '70s by the Highway Safety Foundation. Others include Signal 30, Drive And Survive, Highways Of Agony, Mechanized Death, and The Last Prom.
"Showing a film like this reminds kids that driving is serious business," said Fait, 64. "Some of the images may be a bit unpleasant, but it's the only way to hammer home the point that a car is not a toy."
To discourage hysteria in the days leading up to the film's showing, Fait has had a longstanding policy of not revealing the exact date it will be shown. The current crop of students learned they would be seeing Wheels Of Tragedy when they walked into class Monday and saw the projector at the back of the room.
Though the sight of the projector sparked wild cheering and high-fives among the students, some members of the class approached Fait to express concern over the film's rumored graphic content. When it came time to start the film, however, no one opted out.
"Mr. Fait said if we wanted we could go and sit in the nurse's office," Wesley said. "Nobody wanted to puss out, though."
Fait, who also serves as one of Lincoln Memorial's industrial-arts teachers, has become the official keeper of Wheels Of Tragedy. The film is housed in the closet of the shop's "learning center," a group of tables separated from the band saws and other woodworking equipment by a moveable divider wall.
For nearly a decade, school librarian Iris Beyer has lobbied to have Wheels removed from the driver's-ed curriculum, calling it "a bizarre, violent relic devoid of any educational value." In 1995, Beyer personally threw away most of the school's 16mm educational films, including the gross-out classic Woodshop Safety, the drug-scare film Narcotics: Pit Of Despair, and the menstruation primer On Your Way.
"None of the other teachers particularly approve of Mr. Fait showing that car-crash film, but no one ever says anything," Beyer said. "Mr. Fait is going to retire in a few years, and when he does, we'll just retire the film with him."