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Traffic Jams

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

There's an old joke in California that if you want attention, stage your event on the freeway. The biggest night for pizza delivery in Los Angeles history was when O.J. Simpson in his white Ford Bronco led police on a slow motion chase up and down the San Diego Freeway. None of the L.A. stations has a bureau in the state's capital city of Sacramento. But they all have helicopters that cover traffic on the freeways morning, noon and night. Thus, the joke: If you want people to watch a political debate, stage it on the freeway at rush hour.

Turns out, the same is true if you want them to listen to your band.

This morning, as tens of thousands of people tried to get to work or to appointments or to pick up their kids using the Hollywood Freeway near Sunset Blvd., a large truck pulled diagonally onto the freeway and parked, blocking all but one lane. The driver took the keys and reportedly left the scene. Then the members of the band "Imperial Stars" jumped on top of their truck and started playing for their captive audience of commuters -- and every traffic helicopter that could get there. The truck was sufficiently big that the highway patrol had to get a special vehicle to deal with it. So it sat there for nearly half an hour as traffic basically stopped in one direction and stalled in the other.

Did I mention that the group sings about traffic? According to their website, "Traffic Jam 101" is their latest song.

Rock historians were quick to point out that playing from a slow (or not) moving truck is a stunt the Rolling Stones used back in 1975 when they launched their North American tour playing "Brown Sugar" from a flatbed moving slowly down Fifth Avenue. At least their truck moved. And they didn't get arrested.

The police announced that they had three people under arrest for today's stunt, although the spokesman I heard on the radio admitted they had no idea what to charge them with. Loitering? A traffic violation? Bad road etiquette?

There is endless chatter, most of it to no avail, about how poorly people behave on the Internet -- the meanness, the bullying, the bad language and out-and-out insults. It's not clear that there is anything constructive to be done about it, beyond policing ourselves and educating our children. The First Amendment still protects free, if insulting and inappropriate, speech. Websites and hosts neither can (nor should) be in the business of censoring content, at least when it is intended for adults. And at the end of the day, each of us has the power that comes with the delete key.

The freeways are another matter.

I try to drive carefully, and considerately. But hardly a day goes by when I don't see someone doing just the opposite. People honk angrily when you're driving the speed limit (and there's a police car up ahead). Sorry, Joe, trying to do you a favor. I've been yelled at for stopping for a pedestrian and beeped at for slowing down on my own street (which is full of kids and dogs).

Not long ago, my nephew made the terrible mistake of calling out to someone who had cut him off in traffic. The guy pulled over, blocked his car and literally stabbed him and punched his girlfriend in the eye. (Thankfully, they're both all right.) Let it be a lesson, I said: People are crazy. Don't mess with them.

There's no way to avoid freeways in Los Angeles. They are part of the California dream, as Joan Didion so famously wrote. But the dream is increasingly becoming a nightmare. The musicians may have only been seeking some free publicity, but I guarantee we will hear stories of people blocked on that freeway who were sick, who were on their way to hospitals, whose children were left waiting, whose chance at a job was lost.

Nor is the problem limited to Los Angeles. I travel a lot. Everywhere I go, I see people behaving badly toward others on the road. Most of us are too afraid (and should be) to react. But enough is enough. There should be a law. Hopefully, someone in Los Angeles will think of a good one. The Imperial Stars are not stars. They're a public nuisance.

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