What would you do if another motorist pointed a gun at you on the freeway?
It may be unlikely, but it does happen.
Of all the bizarre ways to die on the road, getting shot has to rank up near the top. But surely, this must be so rare that it doesn't qualify as a legitimate risk, right?
I called the Los Angeles Police Department and asked if anybody was keeping track of how many of these shootings occur in the city. No idea, they told me. Then, I contacted the California Highway Patrol and asked the same question. We don't keep those statistics, the agency said.
Getting shot in a vehicle has a long history, going back at least to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria who was shot in his royal coach, an event that triggered World War I. Pope John Paul II was shot in his jeep by an assassin, whom he later forgave. Of course, President Kennedy may be the most famous American shot in a car. Texas Gov. John Connally was also struck in the presidential limo that day. And most recently, Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was shot at while standing up through the sunroof of her vehicle.
History shows that a car is a vulnerable place no matter who you are. As tragic as all those incidents were, the shootings on the L.A. freeway system seem even more senseless. In most cases, nobody even knows why these shootings occur. And because of the sloppy or nonexistent record keeping, it is hard to assess the risk.
I went through a few databases of news stories and found at least a dozen cases of freeway shootings in Southern California in just the last year.
In addition, a motorist on the Long Beach Freeway was shot in the arm and the leg just the night before the Sical shooting.
On March 14, Deborah Lynn Lepper, a 54-year-old Rancho Cucamonga chiropractor, was shot in the head and killed while driving on the San Bernardino Freeway. Bunthan Roeung, 26, was killed while driving on the Hollywood Freeway on March 2, following an altercation on Hollywood Boulevard. On Feb. 18, a man driving west on the 91 Freeway was wounded in his Ford LTD. Police are investigating a string of shootings involving a BB gun along the Harbor Freeway, though apparently nobody has been hurt in those incidents.
Sometimes, victims are randomly hit. Redondo Beach resident Mark Chang was struck by flying glass and possibly bullet fragments while driving on the 405 in Orange County, when two other motorists began a gun duel on a Friday afternoon last year.
And if you survive a shooting, you aren't out of the woods. Darnell Little Jr., 25, was wounded in a car-to-car shooting on the Santa Ana Freeway in 2006. The wounded man got out of the vehicle and then was hit by a GMC truck and killed.
Many shootings are never solved, but police investigate every one. Police eventually found the alleged gunman and charged him in the killing of 12-year-old Gabriel Garcia on I-15 near Devore last year.
For every homicide, there are more cases of people being wounded or shots fired that miss, according to an LAPD detective. Many of these never make the news.
My review of news stories seems to show that Southern California reigns as the freeway shooting capital of the nation, but perhaps not the world.
Frank Ruiz, chief executive officer of International Armoring Corp. in Ogden, Utah, gets calls from Americans, but almost no business for his bullet-proof vehicles. Armor for a car that protects against small-caliber handguns can cost up to $45,000, not including the car.
But the company -- whose motto is "shelter from the storm" -- is setting up a branch in Johannesburg, South Africa, where shootings, kidnappings and other highway violence are on the rise.
"They happen every day," Ruiz said. So, we're safer here than in South Africa, but not nearly as safe as in North Dakota or Maui.
What's a driver to do?
Can you do anything to prevent shootings? Obviously, you want to refrain from obscene gestures and other overt acts of road rage.
These road-rage incidents are sometimes triggered by drivers who themselves are speeding and get into ego matches with other speeders. I see so much rage on the freeways that I'm surprised more shootings don't occur.
CHP officer Tony Garrett offers this advice if you are being shot at: Drive to the nearest police station or a well-lighted, populated area.
Long Beach Police spokeswoman Nancy Pratt gives this advice: Call 911.
I asked whether a person should duck.
Whatever you think would be feasible, according to another officer.
A CHP detective offers a better idea, suggesting drivers create distance from the aggressor by slowing down their vehicles.
I think a prayer -- a very quick one -- might be a good idea too.