Traffic was moving smoothly a few weeks ago as David Rizzo, a podiatrist from Fullerton, made his regular early-morning commute along the Riverside Freeway to Norco. Suddenly, brake lights all around him began to flash.
An accident? A disabled car?
No, the source of the congestion was an urgent message scrolling on an electronic freeway sign overhead. The message--an Amber alert, urging motorists to be on the lookout for the abductor of a kidnapped child--forced motorists to slow down to read the glowing words flashing overhead.
"Everyone suddenly started hitting their brakes," Rizzo said. "Traffic never came to a complete stop but it caught everyone by surprise."
California motorists will need to get accustomed to this new source of congestion. In July, the Golden State became the first in the nation to use freeway message signs--along with radio, television and the Internet--to disseminate the Amber alerts.
The state has more than 1,000 portable and permanent freeway signs, which were designed to warn motorists about freeway closings and dangerous road conditions, such as ice or snow.
Law enforcement officials and child safety advocates say the traffic congestion is a small price to pay for potentially saving the life of a kidnapped child.
But it is clear that the system still has a few glitches. Using the freeway signs also raises some questions about how and when they should be used.
For example, are the glowing messages a dangerous distraction to the typical Southern California motorist who cruises at 65 mph while sucking down a hot latte with one hand and dialing a cell phone with the other?
How much information can a driver remember before he is tempted to reach into the glove box for a pen and paper?
The use of the freeway signs in California prompted such concern at the Federal Highway Administration that the agency issued a memo in August, warning state agencies to use the changeable message signs sparingly.
The signs are not always "the most effective or safest method to disseminate information related to child abductions," said the memo from Jeffrey Paniati, an acting associate administrator at the agency. They "can convey only a limited amount of information to motorists."
The memo instructs law enforcement officials to establish a policy for shutting off the flashing freeway messages if they "create an adverse traffic impact, such as queues, markedly slowing traffic, etc."
Since the signs were introduced in Southern California in the late 1960s, transportation officials and police have used them to pass on a variety of warnings, tips and travel information. Some attempts have been successful. Others have not.
CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick, agrees that freeway message signs should be used judiciously. But he said he would be willing to sacrifice a smooth commute to improve the chances of rescuing a kidnapped child.
"The consensus here is that the decision to save a child's life" takes precedence, he said.
The freeway message signs were credited with the rescue last month of a 9-year-old girl kidnapped by her mentally disturbed mother in Kern County. Two men, including an off-duty corrections officer, saw an Amber alert on a freeway sign near Chula Vista and spotted the car that matched the description on the sign.
But in the Bay Area, where the same alert was displayed above several busy freeways, a few of the signs were partly unreadable. On one sign, the last two digits of a police phone number were missing.
"There is no doubt that these signs work," said Joann Donnellan, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "But this is brand new. There are going to be some glitches."
The Amber alert has had problems in Southern California too.
An alert was issued about two weeks ago to locate Amadeo Medina Jr., who allegedly abducted his 1-year-old son and his wife's sister from Los Angeles and was headed for the Mexican border. But on the second day of the alert, CHP dispatchers in Los Angeles were inundated with angry calls from motorists complaining about the traffic problems caused by the alerts.
The Medina alert flashed two messages in sequence. The first said "Child Abduction" and the second gave Medina's license plate number and a description of his truck. Other alerts have extended to three messages.
In response to the complaints, local CHP officials discontinued the freeway messages during the morning rush hours in Los Angeles County.
"We don't want to create another dangerous situation while reacting to the first," a CHP spokesman, Tom Marshall, said at the time.
Later that same day, police located Medina and his alleged victims by tracing his cellular phone calls.
But even in the Medina case, Helmick said, he would have kept the freeway alerts on, despite the traffic problems.
By their very design, freeway message signs distract motorists, if only briefly. But some critics fear that such a distraction could became a life-threatening freeway hazard.
A 2001 study by the University of North Carolina found that objects and events outside the car were the leading causes of distraction-related accidents, far surpassing cell phones, smoking and radios.
Karl Severson, who regularly commutes from Rowland Heights to El Segundo, said he was recently caught in a traffic jam caused by an Amber alert.
"It is only a matter of time before any possible benefit to these practices is offset by increased property damage and possible loss of life," he said.
Donnellan said law enforcement officials and child safety experts suggest that the potential for distraction could be reduced if freeway signs simply urged motorists to turn on their radios for details about a child abduction.
"We do need to be concerned that we aren't causing traffic jams," she said.
The Amber alerts are only the latest attempt to use the signs for something other than traffic warnings.
During the 1984 Olympics in L.A., they were used successfully to provide traffic information and directions to athletic events.
But the signs did not work so well in the 1970s, when state transportation officials used them to encourage motorists to ride together. One read "Take the train." Another said "Don't Be Fuelish, be Car-Poolish."
"We had a lot of reaction to that," said Chuck O'Connell, a former administrator for the California Department of Transportation. "We got some angry reaction. The calls came in in buckets."
If you have a gripe, question or story idea about driving in Southern California, send an e-mail to behindthewheel@ latimes.com.