Unintentional injuries (often called "accidents") are the leading cause of death and hospitalization for Canadian children up to age 19. The role of Elmer the Safety Elephant is to teach young children how to stay safe. From the day he first appeared over 50 years ago, he was an instant hit with kids. Over the years, his image has changed to maintain his positive impact on young children. The character and his message are as relevant (and as much needed) today as ever.
It all started in 1946, when Toronto mayor Robert Hood Saunders visited Detroit, Michigan. There he learned about that city's program to teach safety to elementary school children. The program, sponsored by the Detroit Times, used a school safety patrol boy as its symbol. Hoping to start a similar Canadian program, Saunders approached Bas Mason, an editor at The Toronto Evening Telegram newspaper. The Telegram agreed to sponsor the program with the aid of the Toronto Police department and Police Inspector Vernon Page. Page and Mason decided to adopt an elephant cartoon mascot because of the elephant's legendary memory.
Elmer the Safety Elephant was born in 1947. That year, his impact was dramatic. Traffic collisions among Toronto children dropped an astonishing 44 per cent – even though vehicle registrations increased by 10 per cent!
The first Elmer was a standard jungle elephant in profile. However, organizers felt a more dynamic safety character was needed to catch the imagination of young children. So, in stepped Charles Thorson, a Winnipeg artist who had worked at Walt Disney studios. Thorson was eager to contribute in some way to improve the safety of his grandchildren. He worked for months to create a new and exciting Elmer, who appeared in 1948. As part of his new image, costumes were created so Elmer could appear in schools and at events. He even visited movie theatres to meet children at Saturday matinees!
The Safety Elephant's fame grew. Other Ontario communities asked for the program. Demand became so strong that the Telegram, owner of the copyright, authorized the Ontario Safety League to administer the program in Ontario outside Toronto. Elmer's following grew by leaps and bounds to encompass schools throughout that province. Results as impressive as those in Toronto were reported at once.
In 1962, with requests for Elmer pouring in from other provinces, the Canadian Highway Safety Council was asked to assume administration of the program on a national level. In 1968 that Council amalgamated with two other national safety organizations to become the Canada Safety Council. When The Telegram ceased publication in 1971, the Canada Safety Council negotiated the transfer of all rights to the program. The Canada Safety Council currently holds the trademark and copyright for Elmer the Safety Elephant.
Elmer's original safety rules were based on a study of collisions involving children 5 to 9 years of age. The study showed that the vast majority of mishaps could be traced to six hazards. Running was usually a contributing factor.
Lack of knowledge of safety rules was not the only reason for these incidents. Momentary excitement could make the child forget to be careful. This study resulted in the slogan "Elmer and I never forget" and six traffic safety rules. Elmer now has seven traffic safety rules, and addresses many aspects of child injury prevention, including playground, fire, school bus, railway, home and Internet safety.
A 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. Watch: Elmer’s Video