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Elmer the Safety Elephant brings road safety to our schools

The Story

In 1947, Toronto school children meet a most unlikely safety instructor - an elephant. Concerned about escalating road deaths, civic officials and Toronto police team up to create Elmer, a jolly elephant with an easily memorized list of safety rules. This CBC Television clip from 1955 takes a look at how Elmer the Safety Elephant came to be and how his message is bringing safety to the streets. 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: March 27, 1955
Duration: 7:18
This clip has been edited for copyright reasons.

Did You know?

• For nearly 60 years Elmer the Safety Elephant has been delivering his safety message to Canadian school children. His rules of the road, which include "Look both ways before crossing the street" and "Keep away from parked cars," were based on 1940s studies of collisions involving children aged five to nine years old.
• Elmer debuted in 1947 when his Toronto Safety Council-sponsored program was introduced to Toronto elementary schools. In the program's first year, automobile collisions involving children dropped by 44 per cent.
• Elmer the Safety Elephant was the brainchild of former Toronto mayor Robert Hood Saunders, who was inspired by a safety program set up in elementary schools in Detroit, Mich.
• Sponsored by the Detroit Times newspaper, the U.S. program used a safety patrol boy as its mascot and had helped raise awareness of road safety among the city's children in 1946. Saunders enlisted the Toronto Evening Telegram as a sponsor, and the backing of the Toronto police to bring the program to the classroom.
• Saunders and Vernon Page, a police inspector, are credited with developing the original Elmer who was chosen as a mascot because of the legendary memory elephants are reputed to have.
• The first Elmer was little more than an image of a standard elephant in profile. In 1948 Saunders decided to liven up Elmer's image by recruiting Charles Thorson, an animator who had worked with Walt Disney and Warner Brothers studios in the 1930s, to redesign the mascot.
• Thorson, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, began his career at Disney Studios in 1935. He designed the look of Snow White and the seven dwarves before leaving in 1936 following a spat with Walt Disney.
• He is also credited with designing and naming Bugs Bunny for Warner Brothers and "Punkinhead," a cute bear cub that served as a mascot for Eaton's department stores in the 1940s and 50s.
• As this clip shows, Thorson came up with the now familiar Elmer design in 1948. This grinning Elmer came complete with a sailor's cap and bow and proved much more appealing to school children.
• The Toronto Safety Council had costumes made up that were worn in Elmer's many appearances in classrooms and Saturday movie matinees. An integral part of Elmer the Safety Elephant's mission was the coveted safety flag that flew above schools as an incentive for kids to stay out of the way of cars.
• Schools that had gone a minimum of 30 days without an incident caused by carelessness by a student, were allowed to fly the Elmer flag on their flagpole. This rule is still part of the Elmer program to this day.
• In 1947, the year Elmer was unveiled, there was one child injured for every 350 cars on the road. By 1955, the time this clip was broadcast, that record had improved to one child injured for every 500 cars on the road.
• Originally meant for the city of Toronto, the Elmer program proved so popular that in 1962 it expanded across Canada. The Canada Highway Safety Council took control of the national safety program.
• The Canada Safety Council negotiated the copyright for Elmer in 1971 after the Toronto Telegram went out of business. As of 2005, the council still retained the Elmer copyright and had expanded his message to include railway safety, internet safety and bullying.



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