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Driving Habits : Coping With Violence on the Freeway

July 31, 1987|DAVID FREED and ROBERT S. WEISS | Times Staff Writers

Bob Williams, owner of Bob's Plumbing & Heating, isn't taking any chances. Driving down Los Angeles' freeways in his pickup these days, on his way to unplug one more drain, he no longer leans on his horn if somebody is hogging the fast lane.

"I haven't honked at anyone in at least a week," Williams said proudly. "And if someone wants to pass me, I let them."

And Williams makes a point to stare straight ahead as other drivers zoom by. "They might misunderstand my glance and pull out a shotgun or something," he explained.

Limousine driver Giaus Ibe no longer honks, either. And he has stopped weaving in and out of traffic in his rush to pick up and deposit the rich and famous at Los Angeles International Airport.

Mood of Paranoia

"If my lane is going a little slow, I just stay there," Ibe said. "I wouldn't want anyone to think I was trying to cut them off. I think twice before I head onto the freeways because you never know who the next target will be," he added.

Such is the mood of paranoia that has spread in recent weeks like a rush-hour traffic advisory among the motoring masses of the Los Angeles area.

In a county where people live to drive and drive to live, law enforcement officials, behavioral psychologists and just plain motorists all are trying to come to grips with a baffling and unprecedented spate of traffic violence.

Since June 18, there have been at least 16 random shooting incidents, a fad of violence with no clear motivation or pattern, and no end in sight. Four people have died and two have been injured. Arrests have been made in only four cases.

There were three more shooting incidents Thursday, including one in which a Claremont police officer was fired upon by a passenger in a passing car. The officer was writing a traffic ticket on the San Bernardino Freeway. The bullet missed.

Rocks Hurled

Nor was anyone hurt Thursday morning on the Golden State Freeway near Sun Valley, where someone tossing hundreds of rocks from an overpass shattered the windshields of 10 cars, including an unmarked CHP cruiser. (Story in Part II, Page 1.)

With new reports of highway violence seemingly every day, the terror grows, though law enforcement officials say it is an irrational fear when compared to other dangers of the road. They point out that last year, 1,015 people were killed and 103,561 were injured in the 68,083 traffic accidents that occurred in Los Angeles County alone.

Authorities say that many reported shootings are difficult, if not impossible, to verify. Moreover, each incident tends to spawn flurries of telephone calls to police hot lines, with motorists frantically recounting episodes of being tailgated, cut off or threatened by other drivers pointing guns in their direction.

People have become so excited that on Wednesday, CHP officers temporarily shut down all traffic on the eastbound Santa Monica Freeway and the northbound Golden State Freeway when a security guard spotted what he thought was a passing gunman armed with an Uzi rifle. It turned out to be an 8-year-old boy with a squirt gun.

Such stories have done little to dampen hysteria among the 5.28 million licensed drivers in Los Angeles County, many of whom can't help but wonder about that suspicious-looking guy cruising alongside them in the next lane or the one barreling up from behind.

"I get goose bumps now every time someone tailgates me," admitted Richard Balain, a 19-year-old pizza deliveryman.

Fearful of becoming the next victim, many drivers are actually being nice to each other, highway patrolmen, tow truck operators and other highway travelers report.

Fewer drivers are hogging the fast lane or cruising inches from the next guy's bumper. Many more are dutifully signaling their turns and mouthing "Please, after you," as they allow fellow motorists to merge ahead of them into traffic.

On more than a few thoroughfares, "Outta my way, you jerk!" is yielding to "Have a nice day."

Effect on Lawmen

Even otherwise staid policemen are acting differently this summer.

Officer Bill Frio used to imagine himself the king of commuters as he battled his way through highway traffic from his Orange County home to his plainclothes office job at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters.

"I'd be in my own car, but being a cop, you're used to ruling the road so when some guy would come up on my bumper, I'd think, 'Screw him. He can go 'round,' " said Frio, an LAPD spokesman. "Now, I get out of the way.

"My wife's a psychologist . . . and she said there's a lot of nuts out there, and if this is the nuts' forum this week--shooting drivers--so be it. I'm going to be careful."

Frio sometimes used to forget his gun and leave it at work, or toss it into his briefcase when he left. Now he makes sure to strap it on before he puts his car in gear.

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