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SANDY BANKS

The Safest Answer to Senseless Road Rage

May 09, 2000|SANDY BANKS

My daughters still tell the tale with a mix of terror and awe.

They were leaving school with their baby-sitter, walking along the dirt road that led from the parking lot to our car.

A pickup truck rolled by, and a teenager leaned out of its window and muttered something indecipherable. Then an orange was hurled from the truck in their direction, missing my 8-year-old by a hair. The truck revved its engine and sped away.

And our baby-sitter took off after it--flip-flops clattering, ponytail bouncing, my daughters cheering as she gave chase. She planned to catch them, to call the police, to make sure they didn't get away.

But they did get away, roaring off in a cloud of dust, laughing at the hurt on my children's faces.

And while that made my baby-sitter angry, it may have made her lucky, as well.

*

I thought of that day, of her valiant effort, when I read the newspaper story last week of a man who was killed when he got out of his car and approached an SUV that had been menacing him.

Witnesses told police that a black Suburban was tailgating Michael Craven--its occupants pitching eggs at his Jeep--as both cars traveled down the Hollywood Freeway.

Police don't know what prompted the dispute, but Craven "was apparently being chased and was trying to get out of [the Suburban's] way."

"He tried to evade them, and one of the guys [in the Suburban] threw a beer bottle at his Jeep," said LAPD Det. Vince Bancroft. "He got out, like 'What's the problem?' And they hit the gas, ran over him and drove off." Craven died a few hours later of internal injuries.

Police consider it a homicide . . . and a cautionary tale with these lessons:

If you suspect someone is following you, don't confront your aggressors. Try to defuse the situation by driving to a well-lighted, busy public place, in case there is a confrontation. Don't drive home or stop alongside the road. Be prepared to take evasive action.

The story strikes me not just as a cautionary tale on road rage or street mayhem, but as a reflection of a world where the rules of engagement are changing to accommodate the implicit threat of violence that dogs our every day.

There is no evidence that Craven meant to provoke his aggressors. "He got out of his car, palms up, shoulders shrugged, like 'What's the problem here?' " Bancroft said.

"I think he was just hoping that he'd pull over and these guys would drive on by. I think he was more in disbelief than anger--'Why are you doing this to me?' "

His actions seemed reasonable.

Craven's friends told police the San Fernando Valley filmmaker was not a fighter, not an aggressive man. . . . "He was the kind of guy who would not confront somebody, but would stand up for his rights," Bancroft said.

When Craven, 44, was growing up in Kentucky that might have been a model to emulate. But here--in this town, at this time--it might be a blueprint to tragedy.

"We can't afford that attitude anymore," Bancroft said. Our collective fuse is shorter, our moral code more muddled, our encounters cloaked in cowardice, anger and fear.

"The better part of valor is discretion," said Shakespeare. That may be true now more than ever.

"There are a lot of people who are loony, or just stressed out and close to cracking," Bancroft explained. "You confront them over something they've done or said, and you've given them a reason to explode."

My friend John remembers coming of age in the Bronx, when boys settled arguments with fistfights and no challenge went unanswered. To be pushed around was a source of shame. You fought to protect your pride; it was part of becoming a man.

But by the time his son reached adolescence, John was no longer certain what advice to give him, what road to manhood the boy should take: Fight back, respond boldly to provocation . . . and risk taking a bullet in retaliation.

For his part, Bancroft tells his teenage sons to fight only when their safety--not their honor--is at stake.

"I'm all for people defending themselves. We don't want to raise a generation of victims," he said. "But if someone's challenging you and they're not a physical threat to your safety, walk away, report it, tell somebody.

"That doesn't have to threaten your ego. You don't lessen yourself as a man."

*

He is careful not to blame Craven for his misfortune. "The man was not looking for trouble," Bancroft said.

But he might have sidestepped tragedy had he retreated, rather than advanced . . . just as my baby-sitter might have been courting tragedy with her aggressive defense of my girls.

"Everybody should think about what to do in a situation like this, so you don't escalate the threat," the detective said.

"If you have a plan, then when your heart starts beating and your adrenaline's pumping, you revert to the plan, you don't go off on emotion. It puts you back in control; you don't feel at the mercy of your aggressor. That might prevent you from being hurt or killed."

*

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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