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On the Road to Trouble : Carjackings, freeway snipings, smash-and-grab rip-offs, bump-and-run assaults--criminalskeep finding new ways to violate what used to be the safe haven of our rolling cocoons.

April 30, 1993|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the nightmare on most every motorist's mind:

At stoplights, people are dragged from behind the wheel to be robbed, beaten or murdered. On the freeways, drivers are picked off by snipers from the passing lane. From over passes, chunks of concrete are hurled at windshields below.

While such fears overshadow the facts, these days it's not bad weather, bad drivers or the threat of a flat at 60 m.p.h. that has motorists on edge. Violent car crimes have given "defensive driving" new meaning for Southern Californians.

What statistics there are point to an increase in both the numbers and brutality of car crimes throughout the country. But the odds are still small that the average motorist in Los Angeles or any big city will fall victim to car-related violence.

Even so, about 100 years after the invention of the horseless carriage, our love affair with the automobile has been deeply shaken.

L.A. long has been viewed as a car-theft capital. But in the past decade, Southern Californians have feared the rise of a more violent set of crimes. First, there were the freeway shootings, then a burst of "smash and grabs." Reports of horrifying Good Samaritan assaults and follow-home murders were trailed by a rash of "bump-and-robberies."

And now, carjackings, where a man in a $40,000 Lexus is as vulnerable as a woman in an aging Hyundai.

While estimates of the magnitude of auto violence are largely anecdotal, law enforcement officials and other experts agree that for more and more criminals, roadways are becoming rivers of opportunity, offering an easy flow of victims and a ready means of escape.

"There used to be two places where Americans felt completely safe," according to Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), co-sponsor of a 1992 law that made carjacking a federal crime. "One was in (our) homes--and that ended with so many homes being burglarized. The other was in (our) cars--but not anymore."

A Long History

There was crime on the highway long before there were automobiles. From the early days of highwaymen who preyed on travelers to the stagecoach holdups of the early West, folks away from home have always been at risk.

Today, we may be witnessing a reversion to those days, say criminologists such as Richard W. Kobetz, who compares our times to the days "when everybody got into the castle at night and pulled up the drawbridge, leaving the main roads between communities the most dangerous places to be."

No sooner were the first cars on the road than criminals found sinister uses for them, say police. Bonnie and Clyde used big cars to commit big crimes and made big headlines in the process. During Prohibition, gangsters made the shiny black sedan as infamous--and as threatening--as the submachine gun.

But only in the last decade, say some observers, has car crime become so high-profile, so confrontational, so deadly.

"It is a shocking and chilling chronicle of bizarre and brutal crime that we're seeing on our streets and highways these days," says Louis R. Mizell Jr., an international security consultant in Bethesda, Md., whose business it is to count such crimes.

"We have a tidal wave of data," says Mizell. "And there is no question highway crime is increasing."

The Statistics

The numbers of auto thefts have risen nearly 50% in California over the past decade, according to Charlotte Rhea, analyst for the state Department of Justice's Law Enforcement Information Center.

While violent thefts are not counted separately because police generally categorize them as robberies or assaults, officers estimate there were 7,000 carjackings last year in Los Angeles, up from 4,500 in 1991. (Nonetheless, carjackings represent less than 9% of all auto thefts in Southern California.)

Mizell says his organization, which often provides data to the government and other crime-fighting agencies, has tracked a steady rise in violent car crimes. These include more than 3,000 bump-and-rob incidents where criminals staged accidents to victimize motorists, he says.

The escalation of roadway violence does not surprise some behavior specialists who have studied the surge in non-criminal highway violence over recent years.

From motorists who chase one another to those who force each other off the road for real or imagined breaches of driver etiquette, frustrations are high and tempers are hot.

One problem, say law enforcement officials, is that guns appear to be more prevalent on the highways today. (Statistics on just how many drivers pack guns in their cars are hard to come by.)

But, as crime experts have insisted for years, society as a whole is growing more violent, even as our patience with daily life is growing thin.

A ride on the freeway is stressful in itself, even without the fierce territoriality some drivers feel for their vehicles, say behaviorists.

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