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I love watching old “instructional films” from the 1950s and 1960s—you know, the ones that taught kids from that era to have manners and not to be Communists. Many of those films tackled social issues like dating and grooming, but others looked at safety issues, like the 1962 film we’ll examine today: Safety Belt for Susie.

The movie starts off with a father narrating his family’s day at an amusement park. He introduces us to his daughter, Nancy, and one is left momentarily wondering why he doesn’t introduce us to his other daughter.

Aaaaaaa! Things suddenly take a hard turn as we learn the other daughter is actually a doll named Susie.

I’m not generally afraid of dolls, but something about “life-sized-doll-in-an-amusement-park” just screams “Twilight Zone episode.” But wait! We have a lot to learn from Susie.

The family treats Susie like she’s a real child, with Nancy insisting Susie have real dresses and convincing her parents to buy the doll her own cotton candy. (I typed that sentence with condescension until I remembered I have an Instagram account for my son’s stuffed cow, so maybe I should keep my opinions to myself.)

Despite their seemingly inseparable relationship, Susie does not accompany Nancy on her week-long trip to Grandma’s. The father explains that Susie was too large to take on the airplane, although one does wonder why the overindulgent parents didn’t just buy Susie her own ticket.

As the parents are driving to Grandma’s house to pick up Nancy, they swerve to avoid another car and wind up crashing into a tree. Despite what looks like a horrible collision, the parents have only very minor superficial injuries. (They were wearing their seatbelts!)

Susie, who was unrestrained in the backseat, is not as lucky.

The mom and dad go to the doctor to get checked out, and at this point, Dr. McAlister takes over the film’s narration. Coincidentally, it turns out that Dr. McAlister is a medical consultant to the Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering, which has been conducting crash tests with adult dummies and child-sized dolls at UCLA. Rather than thinking the parents are silly for toting Susie around, he’s interested in seeing her “injuries.”

Dr. McAlister then takes the viewer through a brief explanation of how these crash tests are conducted and how they include dolls of various sizes in restrained and unrestrained situations since such scenarios had not been tested before.

The film shows a sequence of outdoor crash tests with real vehicles. If you’re a safety nerd, it’s actually very cool to see how they conducted tests back then.

Based on their research, the doctor states the following:

  • Children should never stand on the seat of the car. Sitting down tends to keep them contained in the back seat.
  • In many cases, testing showed that children would have been killed had they not been restrained.
  • Three-year-olds seated on cushions and restrained by the seatbelt came through uninjured.
  • One-year-olds should be restrained by an anchored harness or a harness with a seatbelt through the loops.
  • Placing a child on an adult’s lap and putting the seatbelt over both of them would result in the child being crushed.
  • Infants are safest strapped into bassinets with the “long axis of the bassinet aligned with the ‘longitudinal axis’ of the car.” (In other words, facing the front of the car, not lying sideways along the back seat.)

Obviously, times have changed and we now have far more information to work with. The idea that a three-year-old on a cushion with a lap-only belt (the type they had back then) would be “uninjured” speaks to the relatively unsophisticated dummies/dolls and methods of determining injury. (A three-year-old in a booster with just a lap belt might not be thrown from the car, but head and abdominal injuries are likely.) We now know that infants should ride rear-facing, and harnesses should be used far beyond a year.

Still though, while the specifics have changed since then, the doctor gave pretty solid advice, especially given what standard practice was at the time (i.e., nothing). I typically start viewing movies like these with a sense of smugness that comes from living in the future, but I’m often humbled by the end. Guys like Dr. McAlister might not have gotten everything right, but they were pioneers in the field of passenger safety.

The doctor concludes his narration by saying, “Perhaps you think a collision could never happen to you, but the children will be safer if you admit that it could, and prepare accordingly. I wish everybody could see these scenes because I don’t believe that anyone who did would ever let the children go riding unrestrained again.”

The film then cuts back to the happy family with their repaired car. The dad had seatbelts installed in the back seat (they were only in the front before), and he makes sure everyone buckles up on every ride now. That includes the freshly repaired Susie.

The dad finishes up by saying, “Many people who would do anything to protect their children, do nothing to save them from injury, pain, or death in the motor accident that can happen at any time. This is a frank appeal to all mothers and fathers. Without restraints such as safety belts, the rear seat of a vehicle, in itself, is not adequate protection.”

Next time you encounter a grandparent who complains that “we didn’t have all these recommendations back in my day,” you’ll know that they actually did, in a way.

You can watch the full 11-minute film here: