Monday, May 11, 2015

Bike Safety 101: Just Like A Car

With a title that reminds young viewers about who really controls the roads, the bicycle safety film Just Like A Car echoes other vintage car-centric educational titles like Bicycle Today Automobile Tomorrow and Drive Your Bike. Like many of these old films that I've examined in the Bike Safety 101 series, Just Like a Car, produced in 1972 by Film Loops, Inc., is definitely a reflection of its time. But in many ways it is also different in its tone and its presentation than some of the other films I've discussed here.

For one thing, throughout much of the film there is very little narration, or even much talking of any kind. Unlike the Sid Davis films such as The Bicycle Clown, or Bicycle Today Automobile Tomorrow, Just Like A Car does without the judgemental or condescending monotonal narrator. Unlike films such as Drive Your Bike, this one mostly does away with stiff and overly scripted dialogue. Instead, the film instructs mainly through visual imagery, sound effects, and music -- often really cheesy music with instructional lyrics. But the film manages to avoid some of the preachiness that overpowers so many other bike safety films, and instead shows biking to be fun (there's a shocker!) while also emphasizing a certain amount of due caution when sharing the road with cars.

The film opens with a shot of an open road, with the roaring sound of a high-performance engine -- maybe a muscle car. The camera pans and zooms, as if trying to locate the speeding car. We see something approaching in the distance, just cresting a little hill . . . is it a Mustang? Corvette? . . . No. . .

. . . It's a girl -- racing down the road on her Schwinn Varsity. Her hair is blowing behind her, and she looks like she's having a blast.

Cue the very '70s music:

♫ "I'm back on the road again, I've been travelin' (on my bicycle). I've turned every curve and bend, I've been travelin' (me and my bicycle). But you know where I go, what I see, is a world tellin' me you're alone, on your own and you've got to be watchin' out for yourself and be thinkin' constantly. 'Cause you know your bike is just like a car. Got to take it like you know who you are. If you want to be a rebel a while, ridin' in style, open your eyes and you'll see. Just like a car. . ."  Ok -- you should watch out for yourself, but wouldn't it be nice if someone instructed drivers to spend at least some of their time looking out for us, too?
Next follows a montage that shows, among other things, an evolution of bikes and cars, as well as lots of goofy clips from old silent-era films showing bikes and cars behaving badly.

Then comes a segment that alternately shows a series of kids on bikes, and people in cars, as they slow down for pedestrians, stop for signs, signal for turns, etc. -- all following the same rules of the road. No narration - just the familiar opening notes from Beethoven's 5th repeating, played on horns and bicycle bells.
♫ Ba Ba Ba BUM ♫ (that's supposed to be Beethoven's 5th if you can't tell).
The little girl signals with her bell before stopping for the old lady who steps into the road without looking.
Lots of groovy old Sting-Rays and banana-seat bikes.
Here, a very observant boy sees a ball rolling into the street from behind the parked car. He correctly predicts an unseen child may follow right behind -- so he signals a stop for the car behind him, then stops for the girl. Realistically speaking, I think it would be really hard to signal and still be able to stop in time. 
The full orchestration of Beethoven's 5th cues up for a busy city scene. Visually and musically, the busy city traffic becomes a symphony of sorts.

As usual, we get the message that bicycles should stop at intersections and walk across. Maybe bikes aren't "Just Like A Car" after all.

Here's one of the few bits of narration in the film: "When there's more than one person on the road, you've got to communicate." Which is followed by a clip from an old Charlie Chaplin film showing an argument that turns into a pie fight. I guess the message is that when it comes to traffic, the potential for conflict is always there. Or that people on the roads often act like children. Or, maybe that if you anger drivers of cars, they might hit you with a pie.

The narration continues (briefly): "Sometimes other people don't want to communicate with you. Then you've got to watch out for yourself."

"Defense. It's all defense," the narrator says. With the scene from a basketball game, we hear the crowd chanting "DE-Fense, DE-Fense, DE-Fense. . ."

Cut over to the kid on his bike, scanning the road for cars. . . 

"DE-Fense, DE-Fense . . ."
He starts to pull out, only to change his mind and exit the road quickly when he sees an absolutely homicidal driver speeding his way in a station wagon.
The homicidal psychopath swerves and weaves at high speed, right where the boy would have been had he not escaped - then speeds off, running through a stop sign. Actually, I love the fact that the film leaves the impression that sometimes drivers really are @$$holes.
The crowd cheers. The kid seems surprisingly relaxed considering that some psychopath just tried to turn him into a hood ornament. Just another friendly day in the neighborhood.
Again we hear the crowd from the basketball game chanting "DE-fense, DE-Fense. . ." The boy scans the road all around. . .
. . . That Chevy behind him is bearing down on him pretty good.
Suddenly another jack@$$ throws his door open into traffic. The kid is ready and takes impressive evasive action. Knowing how close the Chevy is behind him, he takes a hard right and skids to a stop in a driveway.
The Chevy that was following close behind slams on the brakes. I'd have enjoyed seeing him tear the  idiot's door off with his car. It would be a good lesson for motorists, too.
And the crowd goes wild! "DE-Fense DE-Fense!"
The next sequence has another song with cheesy instructional lyrics:

"When I'm ridin' down the street, everywhere I go I meet some signs tryin' to tell me somethin'. At every corner, every bend it seems as though there's just no end to those signs always trying to tell me somethin'  
♫ Now when I ride I get to feelin' free and clear, don't you? And it's not always pleasant being told what I should do. But when I see a sign ahead I read it through and through. Wanna know why? It's tryin' to tell me somethin'.♫ 
♫ "If you want your freedom and you think that you don't need 'em, remember there's times they'll keep you livin'." 
As a goofy recap to the lessons of the film, there's an after-ride interview in the locker room. Yeah, it's corny, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but it did get me to chuckle a little.
"This is Woody Woodford with the post-race show brought to you by Zip toothpaste. Welcome Bob, that was quite a ride. Tell us, Bob, the secret to your riding success. Is it because you use Zip toothpaste?"

Umm, No. Bob explains that he has a good bike and he keeps it in top condition (a bike safety film staple). He goes on, "I keep my eyes on the road, and I always have a good defense."

They go back to the "instant replay" to review some of Bob's skills (like that impressive evasive move where a less attentive rider would have been doored). The message here is actually pretty good advice I think for anyone who shares the road with cars. "Anticipation," Bob tells us. "Thinking. Scanning. Looking around. You've got to expect the worst and figure out the angles. You can never tell when a car door is going to pop open in front of you. . . You've got to look out for yourself out there. Nobody else will." The interview sequence, like a lot in the movie, is pretty corny, but as far as the advice goes, I have to admit, I often think the same thing when I'm out there riding in traffic. An old friend of mine, who had spent time as a bike messenger, took it further and used to operate under the assumption that the other traffic was actively trying to kill him.

I said earlier that the film mostly manages to avoid the stern preachiness of some other safety films I've discussed. Then you get this guy:
"Most accidents are caused by people who don't obey the rules. Please, be a responsible driver. It's the best way to stay alive. Remember, a bike is just like a car." Except when it isn't. The nice thing is that he could just as easily be directing his remarks to motorists as to cyclists.
Wrapping up the film, we've seen lots of examples of kids riding the "right way" (notice that you never see adults riding in these movies -- wouldn't that have been a shocker?) so it's time to see a kid on the path to imminent destruction.

This kid, on another Schwinn Varsity, races along the road without watching for hazards, ignoring signs and signals, zipping around cars, brushing past pedestrians -- all the while the film speeds up, the scenes whizz by in a blur, the music speeds up to a fast paced garble, until the inevitable conclusion. . .
. . . A truck pulls out right in front of him, leaving him to skid to a stop just in time. Whew! That was a close one.
Followed by another quick editing sequence from silent-era movies of car accidents and bike crashes.

Okay - the kid lives to ride another day, maybe a little wiser for his experience. Cue up the cheesy music from the intro again. . .
"Know what you're doin', watch where you're goin'. You're on your own but you're never alone on the road. Lookin' out for you is the ultimate rule and you're playin' it cool. Don't you know your bicycle is just like a car. Got to take it like you know who you are. . ."
It has such a '70s vibe.

You can check out Just Like A Car right here - courtesy YouTube:



  1. I wonder whether Bob became a bike messenger.

    Seriously, even though it's been three decades since I was making deliveries in Manhattan, I still ride as if no one else is looking out for my well-being. At one time, I was like your friend who thought all drivers were actively trying to kill him.

    The interview scene reminds me of Bob McAllister interviewing kids on Wonderama.

  2. I spent years finding a decent print of this film. I'm glad you liked it.

    1. I have quite a collection of old school films -- it's nice to find other people who share that interest.