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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.

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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

“You go down the highway and you’ll see people picking their nose, drinking their coffee . . . ,” says Georgia psychologist Robert Brown. “It’s their personal space. If someone violates that space, it’s almost as if someone has touched you without being asked.”

The Who and Why

The carjacker is a new breed of thief who wants your car and will take your life if necessary to get it.

“There are two kinds of car thieves,” says Detective Bill Lovold, a 21-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department’s auto theft detail. “One comes in the night and takes the car to sell for parts. The other is very different. This person is a robber, usually not a car thief by trade but someone who knows how to rob people and who is probably getting that car for someone who ordered it up.”

Many are gang members who took up carjacking because, as one convicted carjacker recently told a national TV audience, “it was easier than selling dope or ripping off crack houses.”

And besides, he added, “You don’t have to hang out too long till you see someone to get, y’know?”

Young men like these, say sociologists, want money--although that may not prevent them from also committing assault, rape or murder while stealing a car.

For many carjackers Lovold has seen, violence is “a way of life. They’re committing crimes because they want to. They’re hoodlums, thugs. They’ll go to jail, come out in three or four years and be out doing the same thing.”

Car Symbolism

While the money promised for delivering a stolen car may be the conscious motive, the choice of a car as the object of a crime may have more subconscious meaning, says Dr. Alfred Coodley, psychiatric consultant to Los Angeles criminal courts.

“The car is a symbol of masculinity to many people. The newer the car, the more expensive the car, the more significance the car has from a masculinity standpoint,” says Coodley.

“Clearly, the acquisition of cars is like the acquisition of a gun. It’s a power. It’s a capacity to outdo, outspeed other people, which is one reason a fair number of people who steal cars will race with police for miles and miles.”

Car crime, macho as it is, is an equal-opportunity pursuit, according to security expert Mizell who has identified more than 100 female carjackers. Like their male counterparts, the women prey upon the easily overpowered. Often that means women--especially those traveling alone with children--and the aged.

No Place Is Safe

“Criminals are now saying, ‘When you leave that cocoon, that home, you’re mine.’ They can cruise and watch and wait for you . . . anywhere, " warns Kobetz, the Washington-based criminologist.

No place is completely safe. No time of day or night. And no make or year of car.

Vehicles, old and new, have been carjacked for every reason from a ride home to a jailbreak.

Every carjacking of a Mercedes-Benz or a BMW gives luxury car owners a chill. Some on the brink of buying wheels with prestige may rethink their choice. Some families with one luxury auto and a second cheaper car say they are beginning to leave the good car at home.

Earlier this month, the slaying of Kathy May Lee in her mother’s Lexus shocked those who believed murders just don’t happen in crowded fabric store parking lots in places like Alhambra.

And recently two men were killed in North Hollywood by apparent carjackers. One of them was a Caltrans worker who was found dead near the Hollywood Freeway on-ramp where he had been laying down traffic cones. His four-year-old Ford truck was stolen.

Most chilling perhaps is the number of victims who are followed home.

“It’s shocking but true,” says Mizell. “Our very driveways have become one of the most dangerous areas in our lives.”

This sense of uncertainty is not lost on some nervous drivers. Cellular phone sales go up whenever and wherever carjackers strike. Days after Iowa student Tammy Zywicki was murdered along Interstate 44 on her way back to school last August, sales of car phones to students in the Midwest rose as much as 50%.

Women who drive alone with their children report keeping windows up and doors locked on even the most stifling days. Shortcuts are being replaced with longer--but more populated--routes.

At some malls, lower parking levels are almost deserted, say some store owners. And at stoplights, cautious drivers are more likely to leave “getaway” room in front of and behind their cars. More than one edgy motorist has admitted to rolling through red lights at night to avoid becoming, as one put it, “a sitting duck.”

Although there is no solid research to support the theory, some veteran law enforcement officials believe the escalation of violent car crimes may ultimately lead to a more violent population of drivers.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if more folks begin packing pistols in their glove compartments--even though that’s in no way the answer to this threat,” says one police officer.

What is the answer?

Maybe public transportation. Maybe car-pooling. Or maybe we’ll just stay home . . .

Times staff writer Gary Libman and research librarian Joyce Pinney contributed to this report.


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