Barreling along the freeway at about a mile a minute, Harold Harvey Hawks pulled out a 12-gauge shotgun and fired. Later, he told police, he just meant to scare the driver of a van who had flashed his bright headlights, thrown a can and cut him off on the Riverside Freeway.
On June 30, Hawks received the maximum term of 17 years to life, because the shot he fired killed a passenger in the van: Patricia Dwyer, an off-duty Corona policewoman whose husband was driving.
"Two hotheads met on the freeway, and neither one of them would give in," summed up jury forewoman Joyce Beck after jurors found Hawks guilty of second-degree murder.
It was the first in a recent series of Southern California freeway shootings--a new kind of urban warfare that California Highway Patrol officials and others fear may be a growing trend.
"It's a war out there," said Dr. Ange Lobue, director for medical affairs at College Hospital in Cerritos and a psychiatrist specializing in stress management. "For most people, the most stressful place in Southern California is the freeway."
The latest incident took place Saturday night in Costa Mesa when a 28-year-old Rolling Hills Estates man was shot and critically wounded by a gunman firing from a car near the grounds of the Orange County Fair. The shooting apparently stemmed from a dispute over which car had the right-of-way in creeping traffic near the terminus of the Newport-Costa Mesa Freeway.
Paul Gary Nussbaum, 28, remained in "very critical condition" Monday in the intensive-care unit of Fountain Valley Regional Medical Center, a hospital nursing supervisor said.
Costa Mesa police said they will ask the Orange County district attorney's office to file attempted murder charges against Albert Carroll Morgan, 32, a roofer, who was arrested within minutes of the shooting as he and his wife attempted to enter the fairgrounds after the shooting.
It was the third freeway incident involving a gun within a month.
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies are still looking for an irate tailgater on the Santa Ana Freeway who was racing southbound June 20 in the fast lane near Santa Fe Springs. He roared up behind Sandra Leigh Tait's car and flashed his lights on and off.
"Just all of a sudden, there he was . . . so close I couldn't even see the headlights," she recalled.
Seconds later, he pulled alongside her, raised a .38-caliber pistol and fired two shots, killing Tait's boyfriend, Rick Lane Bynum, who was sitting in the passenger's seat. Bynum's 3-year-old son was sleeping in the back seat at the time.
The next day, in an unrelated incident, a race between two cars for an exit ramp off the San Bernardino Freeway ended with a Los Angeles man shot in the arm. The gunman escaped.
California Highway Patrol Officer Matt Clark of Santa Ana compares the freeways to psychological experiments in which rats crowded into a box become violently aggressive.
"People are going crazy out there," he said. "And it's getting worse."
While no one keeps statistics on such things, there is a broad consensus that violent confrontations on the freeway are rising, according to state CHP spokesman Kent Milton. The reasons, say those who study driver aggression, are as complicated as a rush-hour commute:
- Cars offer anonymity, a feeling of power and the chance to escape, lowering inhibitions to aggression. "It's the private bubble that brings out Mr. Hyde," said Raymond W. Novaco, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies freeway driver stress and anger.
- Traffic congestion is worsening because freeway construction has not kept pace with population growth. Rush hour has become creep hour. As driver frustrations and blood pressures rise, "There is a highly significant decrease in tolerance," Novaco said.
- American society increasingly condones violence, said Arnold Goldstein, director of the Center for Research on Aggression at Syracuse University in New York. In advertising and television, for example, we see "great levels of displayed violence but fewer and fewer restraints," he said.
"So now if someone cuts you off on the freeway, instead of yelling or an obscene gesture, the violence of the response may escalate to actual physical injury. In some cases with a gun," he said.
While freeway killings have recently grabbed the public's attention, homicidal thoughts have been a commuting companion of frustrated motorists for some time, according to one research effort. In an early-1970s survey of Salt Lake City drivers, 12% of the men and 18% of the women reported that at times, they "could gladly kill another driver."
Indeed, the sometimes lethal game of high-speed freeway leapfrog, with drivers cutting each other off, tailgating, flashing lights and giving the "one-finger salute," continues much as before, said Ken Daily, a 20-year CHP veteran who works in the San Juan Capistrano office.
"It's nothing new, just now they have weapons," he said.
Cars, experts say, can bring out the worst in people.