Eliot Ness’s “Save a Life for Christmas” campaign

When Eliot Ness became Cleveland’s Public Safety Director, Cleveland had the highest traffic fatality rate in the country. Ness developed a four-pronged approach to address this sad safety record: creation of the Accident Investigation Unit; establishment of a police ambulance force; implementing high-profile police patrols throughout the city; and launching the Accident Prevention Unit, a program to educate the public on traffic safety.


IIn 1939, the Accident Prevention Unit along with the Community Relations Department launched the “Save a Life for Christmas” campaign. The slogan had been chosen at a Cleveland Safety Council meeting in November. The police distributed over 25,000 posters bearing the slogan and a picture of Santa Claus in an attempt to raise traffic safety awareness, especially among the throngs of holiday shoppers filling Cleveland’s downtown streets.  December always brings traffic headaches of bad weather, short days and holiday excitement. If all of us, whether we are motorists, pedestrians or parents of sleigh-riding youngsters, cross accidents off our Christmas list.”


The police even recruited Santa to help with the campaign! Patrolman John C. Chevin of the Public Relations Bureau traveled the city as Santa Claus, preaching safety and stressing the slogan: Save a Life for Christmas.  He was chosen because of his jolly soul and also because he was a first class actor.

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The float was made by the Police Public Relations Bureau.  All twelve members of the bureau pitched in to do the job.  Everything in connection with the float was borrowed.  A rayon concern gave the red rayon with which the float is covered.  A big department store supplied the tinsel and ornaments.  A riding academy lent the sleigh.  Another concern lent the Santa Claus costume.  It took three days to complete the float.

Loud speakers are mounted on the trailer and Santa Chevin has a hand microphone.  The program is varied.  Inside the police car, Patrolman James Fitzwilliams operates the records.  The repertoire includes such pieces as “Jingle Bells,” “That’s What I Want for Christmas,” and many others.  In certain sections the “Beer Barrel Polka” will draw a crowd faster than anything else.”


CPD Candy Cane float with Santa and his Sleigh, towed by one of the department Tri-color Ford patrol cars, parked in front of the Cleveland Board of Education building. Santa, Patrolman John C. Chevin #148 and his Elves, Patrolmen James C. Fitzwilliams #222 and Edward J. Flanagan #441

Officers issued jaywalking tickets and encouraged safe street crossing, especially outside of the city’s busy shopping districts. Here a police officer speaks with shoppers outside the Higbees Department Store on Ontario Street. Notice the high profile patrol car with the ‘Save A Life (for) Christmas’ bumper sign.


This holiday-themed safety campaign proved very successful and was repeated for years, lasting at least into the 1960s.

Plain Dealer 12/4/1940
Plain Dealer, 12/25/1940