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Idle Hands Create Unthinkable Road Hazards


Given all the hazards facing motorists, who would ever expect to get slammed by a rock, a tombstone or a bowling ball thrown by some bored adolescents looking for thrills?

Two months ago, Julie Laible, a 32-year-old college professor, was killed when a 30-pound piece of concrete crashed through the windshield of her Honda Civic. The concrete hit her in the head, killing her instantly.

Her death along Interstate 75 in Manatee County, Fla., horrified people. Two 16-year-old boys and an 18-year-old youth were arrested. One told police they were cruising around that Saturday night when they decided to throw chunks of concrete off overpasses at the traffic below. Two of the suspects face charges of second-degree murder; authorities are still deciding whether to prosecute one of the 16-year-olds as an adult.

Imagine finding malicious pleasure in dropping concrete onto cars--or tombstones or bowling balls, which have been used in similar recent incidents.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that between 1987 and 1997, an average of 18 people a year were killed on the nation's roadways by thrown or falling objects.

Statewide in 1998, the California Highway Patrol reported making 260 misdemeanor arrests and 32 felony arrests for throwing objects at vehicles and passengers. The numbers were down from 1997, when there were 272 misdemeanor arrests and 36 felonies.

Nevertheless, said Ann Richards, a public affairs officer for the California Highway Patrol in Sacramento, thrown objects are not among the top 20 accident factors.


To be sure, such incidents are infrequent when compared with the thousands of drunk-driving fatalities, speed-related accidents and other roadway tragedies. But throwing a rock off a bridge and watching it smash through a windshield shows such a stupefying and chilling disregard for others that it's hard to dismiss such behavior as just a blip on society's radar screen.

In 1996, to cite one notable recent example, the CHP reported that at least 54 freeway drivers from the San Gabriel Valley to the Westside had their rear vehicle windows shattered by rocks, BBs or pellets. Though some of the victims feared it was gunfire, the CHP determined that firearms were not involved; they suspected that the projectiles were being launched by slingshot from the side of the freeways.

In 1997, three people were injured and their cars damaged when a youth threw chunks of concrete onto the Riverside Freeway on a Saturday night.

A couple of days later, a 22-year-old man allegedly hurled a six-foot metal bar and other objects from a Fullerton railroad overpass at motorists. The bar, according to the CHP, came within inches of hitting a 1-year-old in one of the cars.

What makes such behavior even scarier is that the perpetrators are often children or older adolescents. And Anaheim Police Officer Harald Martin is concerned that many of the incidents are copycat cases.

If some kids start throwing rocks at cars and it gets in the news, Martin said, "some other idiot starts doing the same thing."

CHP Officer Ernie Sanchez recalls a rash of kids shooting marbles and rocks at cars, breaking rear windows, a few years ago.

"We had a teenager who started doing it," he said, "and then [the incidents] spread like wildfire."

Even younger children have been involved, Sanchez said. A few years ago, he investigated an incident involving two boys--8 or 9--throwing rocks onto a freeway.

"They were dropping them over a high back wall of a house. I don't think they even knew what they were hitting," he said.

"Who knows why they would do it," says author and UC Irvine sociology instructor Mike A. Males. "There are certain individuals of all ages that are callous about the welfare of other people. . . . It's like the person who would fire a gun or drive a car into a crowd of people."


A young child may not understand the consequences, said Males, the author of "Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation" and "The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents." "They may think it would just bounce off a car window."

Parents need to let kids know that hurling rocks at cars is not fun and games.

Said Los Angeles Police Lt. Anthony Alba: "We would impress upon parents to tell their children that it could become a serious felony if someone is injured. This is not amusing. People can be seriously injured."

If motorists see rocks or bottles being thrown from an overpass, he said, they should immediately report the incident to law enforcement "because the next motorist who comes along may not be so lucky."


Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail:

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