Southern California freeway shootings test drivers, police. Motorists practice `defensive driving' after series of attacks

Southern Californians, arguably among the most traffic-hardened people on earth, are reacting with a combination of force and finesse to a rash of freakish violence along their highways. Law-enforcement agencies are beefing up their presence along the area's 722-mile web of freeways in hopes of stemming the recent series of shootings and other confrontations between motorists.

At the same time, many drivers are being defensively civil when sitting behind the wheel.

``I don't mess with anybody anymore,'' says one veteran freeway driver, who works in downtown Los Angeles. ``If they come up and tailgate me, I get out of the way.''

But others are taking it with characteristic commuter aplomb. ``I'm not wearing bullet-proof clothing in the car yet,'' says Lilly Emami, a credit analyst at a downtown bank.

The changes come in the wake of close to two dozen random roadway shootings in southern California since mid-June. Four people have died and at least six others have been injured in the incidents.

Since opening a special hotline late last week, police have been receiving as many as a dozen calls an hour from motorists complaining of reckless drivers, people brandishing guns, and other aggressive acts on the roads.

``There is no question whatsoever that this spate of violence is the worst we've ever had,'' says Michael McCrary, president of the Los Angeles County Chiefs of Police Association.

Although the series of incidents here has been unusual, freeway violence is a recurring problem.

From time to time, a rash of shootings, stabbings, and other conflicts has broken out between motorists in certain areas, often for unexplainable reasons. Houston police, for instance, saw an unusually malevolent period, including several shootings, in 1982.

Recently, there have been reports of isolated gunfire involving motorists in New York, Connecticut, Arizona, and the San Francisco Bay area.

While no comprehensive statistics exist, some experts believe a general trend of lawlessness and violence on freeways is on the rise in the United States. They attribute this in part to increased frustration over traffic congestion in many major urban areas.

``In terms of what is accepted as civilized traffic behavior, it is bad news,'' says Francis Kenel, director of traffic safety for the American Automobile Association.

In southern California, population growth is decidedly outpacing the region's efforts to solve transportation problems. Even on mornings when no accidents occur, some 300 miles of freeway in Los Angeles and Orange counties are bottlenecked by congestion, more than anywhere else in the country. Motorists collectively waste 628,000 hours a year waiting on freeways here.

Nor is the downtime likely to get any shorter. The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission estimates congestion in the county will jump 50 percent over the next 20 years.

By the year 2000, a rush-hour trip that now takes 1 hours on the San Diego freeway, a main north-south artery, will take three hours. The average speed on the Ventura Freeway, the world's busiest, will be 7 m.p.h.

Yet how much ossified traffic has contributed to the recent rash of violence is uncertain. Authorities point out that many of the shooting incidents have occurred during off-peak travel hours.

Other explanations for the outbreak include increased levels of violent crime in general, the prevalence of violence on television, drug and alcohol abuse, and even the breakdown of the family.

One concern growing out of the shootings is the number of people who carry guns in their vehicles.

Although it is unlawful to carry a loaded, concealed firearm in a car in California, police in Los Angeles County say they make ``numerous'' arrests every day in which a weapon is found.

``It is a major problem,'' Chief McCrary says.

To curb the current spree of violence, city, county, and state law-enforcement agencies have formed a task force to search for a pattern to the shootings or plausible reasons for them. The agencies have also agreed to spend more time patrolling freeways.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to hold hearings on the problem early this month.

The California Highway Patrol is broadcasting cautionary tips over the radio each day warning commuters to avoid confrontations.

Red-bereted Guardian Angels, part of the organization spawned in New York City to combat subway crime, have been handing out flyers to motorists urging them to drive cautiously - something many here already seem to be doing.

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