Monday, March 30, 2015

Bike Safety 101: Drive Your Bike

It's hard to imagine a more car-centric bicycle safety film than Drive Your Bike from 1954. It's also one of the most incredibly dull and stilted films of the genre, and believe me, that's a crowded field.

This 10-minute film was made by the Sullivan Company, which according to the Prelinger Archives was a family-owned film production company from Southern California. I've heard that the film is like a time capsule of Burbank Calif. in the '50s. If that's true, I deeply hope that refers only to the sights and scenes, and not the people. I'd like to think that actual people back then weren't this dreadfully stiff in real life. But also, one would think that being as close as Burbank is to Hollywood, they could have found people who were even just marginally better actors.

The film opens with this scene of three young boys driving a Studebaker (which appears for all the world to have NO windshield!):

"Now, what do you suppose these boys are doing driving this car?" says the narrator. "They aren't old enough to drive." Uh-oh. It seems like the setup for one of those films on juvenile delinquency.

But then - jokes on you! They're only pretending to drive while the car is safely parked in the driveway. Next thing we know, here comes Dad, who needs to get to work:
"And where do you boys think you're going?"
"Oh, hi Dad - we were just practicing our driving."
Dad then humors the boy by asking what he knows about driving. As it turns out, quite a lot. . .

"You're not trying to tell me you know how to drive a car, are you?"
"Sure, Dad. Just watch this. First you put this lever in neutral, then you turn on the key, then you step on the starter to get the engine going. Then you put in the clutch, put in in gear, and step on the gas. How's that?"  Cars were a little more complicated back then. And tell me I'm wrong about the windshield.
Dad always manages to come across as a condescending pr$%k.
"That's pretty good as far as it goes, but that's just the mechanical part of it. There's many other things you have to know before you can drive a car. Important things like traffic rules and regulations."
The kids then tell Dad about how the "Coach" has been teaching them all about traffic rules every week at school. "We call it learning to 'drive our bike'."

"If we learn about all the regulations by driving our bikes, we'll be ready to drive a car when we're old enough."
Yessir - then you'll never have to ride that bike again. That's what it's all about. It's the American Dream.
Again and again, we see back-to-back shots of the boys on their bikes, then behind the wheel of a car as the film encourages kids to think like a driver -- not a bike rider. (I hope the cars are being towed during the filming, and not actually driven by the kids.) "Coach says we should always drive our bike like we would drive a car. So you see, if we think about driving our bike and always doing the safe thing, we're not as likely to get into trouble."
Suddenly, Dad decides he's not in any hurry to get to work, as he gets back out of the car to grill the kids on what they've learned about "driving your bike."
Dad practically oozes with condescending smugness.

He's like Ward Cleaver's @$$hole brother.

Dad proceeds to give the kids the 3rd degree about their lessons, peppering them with question after question, and the kids give him excruciatingly scripted answers. The film stresses that bikes follow the same rules and regulations as cars -- great -- but it apparently doesn't mean they deserve the same respect.
No "taking the lane" here -- the film practically tells kids to ride in the "door zone" and be prepared to stop -- a lot.
As Dad and the boys talk about the dangers of riding double on a bike, they imagine how "silly'" it would be to ride around on the hood of a car. Just "silly"? -- not dangerous or potentially deadly? And I find it ironic that the filmmakers actually have a kid riding on the hood of a moving car in filming the scene. The kid looks like he's having fun, though -- the way a dog loves hanging its head out the window.
Always slow down before crossing intersections, obey signs, give pedestrians the right-of-way. Yadda yadda yadda. Pretty typical bike safety film fare.

"It's just as important to keep our bikes in good condition as it is to keep up a car."
You can practically smell the chain oil and Brylcreme.
"You boys seem to know quite a bit about riding. . . that is. . . driving your bikes. . . You know, I've been wondering about something. Is all this just a lot of 'fancy talk' or do you really drive your bike?"

The boys then go on to tell Dad about times they've avoided trouble on the roads by thinking like drivers instead of like kids on bikes. For example, this boy had a good head of steam going on a long downhill stretch, but decided to stop for some little girls in the crosswalk, even though the loss of momentum was going to mean a "tough pump" to get to the top of the next hill.

WWDD. What would a driver do? Hmmm. I'm going to say fly through the intersection without looking. But the kid is actually more attentive . . .

 "When a car also stopped, it made me feel pretty good knowing that I set a good example for that driver."
Dad: "Wasn't that good feeling you got from being courteous and considerate worth the extra effort it took to get to the top?"
Kid: "Yeah - I'll say it was."
Gosh - that's swell.
Then one of the boys tells us about Tom Kelly, who "almost did a foolish thing" by riding down the wrong side of the street. . .

"Then he thought how dangerous it would be to drive a car down the wrong side of a busy street, and how easy it would be to cause an accident. He decided that wasn't a very good way to drive his bike, then turned around and went back to the corner, where he crossed in the crosswalk, then rode down on the right side of the street. So you see, he probably avoided an accident by remembering to drive his bike." Damn, that dialogue is stiff -- and delivered almost robotically.
Eventually, Dad decides he's grilled the kids long enough, and it's time to get to work.

"I'd like to hear more about this later. It certainly seems to me you boys are doing a good job of driving your bikes. You're learning a lot of valuable and important things that will be very useful to you when you start to drive a car. In fact, you already know more about safe driving than many adult drivers. Well, so long." 
As the film concludes, we get a glimpse of the Coach's bike safety course at school, where the Coach summarizes what we need to know so we can all become productive, well-adjusted, "normal," red-white-and-blue flag-waving, car-driving consumers.

"Now we have learned it's very important to know all the rules and regulations of traffic. And that it's even more important to know why we have the rules, and why we must obey them. But the most important thing of all is to know how to drive your bike safely without having to stop and think of rules to cover every situation. You might not have time to think of a rule. . .
"Always use your head, and think about safety. . . By starting now and learning to drive your bikes, you'll be able to drive an automobile when you're old enough. And you'll be able to do a good safe job of it. Remember to Drive Your Bike."
One of the things that amazes me again and again in these old films is that, if the films are in any way a reflection of real life at the time, then one must assume that bicycle safety classes were a pretty common thing in schools in the '50s and '60s. I'm assuming that must have been the case, otherwise, under what context would these films have been shown? The films are almost always "aw shucks" goofy, or overly simplistic, often full of unintended irony, and have all the hallmarks of ultra low-budget production. But just the fact that there was even some kind of attempt at all to teach kids about riding (even if it was just meant as a stepping stone to future car ownership, as was the case with so many of them) would indicate that people were on to something back then that we've lost sight of somewhere over the years.

It's almost impossible to imagine, in this day of relentless standardized testing -- when arts, music, and even physical education programs are being slashed or eliminated altogether -- that schools would start devoting time to bicycle safety. Hell -- in a lot of communities nowadays, any parent who would even allow their child to ride a bike to school would probably be brought up on charges of child endangerment.

Films like Drive Your Bike might be dumb -- but focused education on bicycle riding, rules, and rights, is anything but.

Insomniacs can download Drive Your Bike at the Prelinger Archives, or it's also available for viewing through YouTube, or right here:


1 comment:

  1. I'm a bit late commenting, but I prefer the tagline of, "Bike Your Drive!"

    I enjoy these old film posts for the different perspectives of the time periods. Aside from the stiff acting and repeated implication that bikes are only for kids, I thought this one seemed a little less cringe-worthy than some of the previous films. Though I guess that's not saying much.