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On Southland Freeways, a New Sense of Commuter Caution


Changing into a swimsuit at the downtown YMCA, Patrick McDivitt pondered the Southland freeway and roadway shootings that have claimed four lives since June 18, and admitted he's nervous--"For the first time, I have no problem about letting someone in and making sure my turn signal is on while I'm changing lanes," said McDivitt, who commutes from Manhattan Beach.

And now when he does change lanes, "I have a tendency to look back and make sure the window of the car in the other lane is rolled up," McDivitt said. Violence on the freeway has become "epidemic," he said--"Now everybody thinks you should fire away and fall back."

In fact, an informal Times poll in the downtown area suggests that many commuters are wondering if it's safe to venture onto the on-ramp.

Karen Jensen, a cocktail waitress at Stepps, a favorite watering hole in Bunker Hill's financial district, drives home each night to Brentwood. "I'm really scared," she admitted. "I don't want to die on the freeway."

Jensen's strategy is to "drive as cautiously as possible and stay as far away from the other cars as I can. I won't even drive in the fast lane anymore. That seems to be where it's happening the most."

Sipping a beer at Stepps, John Marshall of Encino, an IBM salesperson, said he used to react internally and get "excited" when challenged by an aggressive driver. But when a large truck cut him off on the Ventura Freeway at Coldwater Canyon one day recently, he just told himself to keep calm--"I said there's no need to get shot for that."

Pondering the serial shootings, Stepps head bartender Michael Quick said he always felt his car "was a safe haven . . . you could sing or whatever you want and they couldn't get to you. Apparently they can."

Added Quick, who commutes from Playa del Rey, "If a guy's tailgating, sometimes, depending on your mood, you might want to toy with him a bit or slow down. Now you just try to get out of the way."

In Southern California, where one's car is one's castle, other drivers expressed their sense of outrage that this private world has been violated.

"When you were in your car," said cab driver Sam Baker, "it seemed like you were in your own little world. With people getting shot, that's not true anymore."

For out-of-towners who have to brave Los Angeles traffic, "it's too soon for (the danger) to sink in," commented a road service supervisor with Avis Rent-a-Car at LAX who would only give his first name, Paul. "But I'm expecting them to start asking, 'Do you know how dangerous it is to drive on the freeways?"'

When visitors do start asking, he said, "I'm going to tell them it's a jungle out there. Like the rest of the world."

Most drivers are "probably still looking at the entire situation as somewhat crazy and somewhat random," said Richard A. Swart of the Automobile Club of Southern California public safety department.

Indeed, the L.A. freeway shootings are news, if not page one news, in middle America, where a lot of towns don't even have a freeway.

Tim Fought, news editor of the Grand Forks, N.D. Herald, said his newspaper played it on page two with other "second tier" national news.

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In Grand Forks (population: 50,000) "there is one intersection where you can wait on a light for a good length of time," Fought noted, and "a lot of people in Grand Forks read about the craziness on the California freeways and think, 'Boy, I'm glad we don't live there."'

It has been inside page news, too, at the Fayetteville, N.C. Times and Observer, which serve a community that is just skirted by one freeway, Interstate 95. But "the big thing here," city desk editor Bryan McKenzie said, "is the dispute between the county commissioners and the board of education over administrators' salaries."

Said Los Angeles cab driver Steve Anquetil of Hawthorne, lighting a cigarette while waiting for a fare at Union Station, "If I find someone coming up close behind me and it looks like he wants to get by, I'll get out of his way." And, he said, "I try to stay off the freeway as much as possible."

During a break from downtown jury duty, Belinda Minore, an executive secretary from La Crescenta, said she has already noticed a new attitude of courtesy. Entering the Pasadena Freeway from the Golden State and driving the short distance to the Hill Street off-ramp, she "had no problem changing the four lanes . . . usually that's so tight I have to squeeze in. I had a blinker on and people made an opening and I thought that was wonderful. That's the way it should be."

As Dennis Klimes, a foreign exchange trader who works downtown, listened to his friends' tales of the freeway, he came up with an idea for a "great" bumper sticker--"If I cut you off, don't shoot."

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