The televised car chase is a phenomenon bound up in the very being of freeway-tangled Los Angeles. Why are there so many police pursuits in L.A., and how did they become such a popular spectacle? Xeni Jardin speaks with New Yorker staff writer Tad Friend about how history, technology and geography conspire to produce the thrill of the chase.
XENI JARDIN: The city of Los Angeles and the car chase are like love and marriage. Hannity and Colmes, yin and yang, a phenomenon springing from the very makeup of the sprawling freeway-tangled city.
MAN: Okay, here it goes. He is in the center divider but there's a CHP officer blocking the center divider - [SOUND TRAILS OFF]
XENI JARDIN: Helicopter video crews wait at the airport for just the right police scanner alert and rotor aloft at the drop of an accelerator. Then to the live video feed. Breathless anchors narrate the freeway drama.
MAN: [ ? ] officer right there. There goes the spike strip. He ran right over it on the right side. - [SOUND TRAILS OFF]
XENI JARDIN: Why are there so many police pursuits in L.A. and how did they become such a popular spectacle? Tad Friend recently took a long look at this automotive and media phenomenon for The New Yorker, and he joins me now. Tad, welcome to On the Media.
TAD FRIEND: Thanks very much.
XENI JARDIN: Can you kind of take us through the chronology of the televised car chase? How has this kind of grown up in front of our eyes?
TAD FRIEND: Well, the first televised car chase occurred in 1990. There was a couple named Bob and Marika Tur, who later became famous for being the first couple -- they had their own helicopter and they were the first couple to find where O.J. Simpson was on the freeway in 1994, and they were also the couple that shot Reginald Denny being beaten senseless in the riots of '92. And there was a programmer named Jeff Wald, who's now at KTLA, which was then a sort of struggling station, and he thought, well, let's go live with these things. They're cheap to produce. People like to watch them. What can it hurt? So he kind of gave the Turs carte blanche to fly around listening to their scanner. Marika would hang out the window of the helicopter and Bob would narrate the chases. And they would film them from Marika's shoulder camera, and it turned out people really loved to watch them. A couple of years later, there was a chase. Five stations went live with it. And when KCOP cut away from it to go back to "Matlock," viewers called in and said, "What about that chase?" And that was basically the day that the chase was born.
XENI JARDIN: You have something that becomes like an instant in temporary reality TV show. Can you sketch out for us the elements that make a dramatic car chase broadcast? Who are the players? What's the narrative?
TAD FRIEND: The narrative tends to be someone who is really desperate [LAUGHS] to get away, and if it's at night, one hopes they've hit a spike strip that's been laid in front of them and their tires are blown and they're fish-tailing a little bit and there are sparks coming out of their rims. That's always good. Often, for some reason, there seems to be a phenomenon whereby people who have actually driven extremely well, threading through traffic at high speed, avoiding the police, not hitting anything, suddenly take it into their heads to pull off the freeway and then head into a parking lot of a fast-food joint. I don't know why this is, but it always happens, and they invariably are instantly caught in the fast-food place. Well, there seems to be some kind of like – [OVERTALK]
XENI JARDIN: [LAUGHS]
TAD FRIEND: - "I've been driving for three hours. I really need a Whopper," and that's what brings them down.
XENI JARDIN: Nothing like a good doughnut at the end of the chase for the chasee.
TAD FRIEND: Exactly. Except the doughnut will be enjoyed in jail.
XENI JARDIN: What does this tell us about class distinctions in L.A.?
TAD FRIEND: Well, I think there is a sort of uncomfortable way in which people in the kind of higher-rent areas of the town, which are often physically elevated, or above the sort of flatter, poorer areas of the city, and they often sort of feel like they're looking down on, both literally and figuratively, the areas where chases tend to originate. And it tends to be true that, by and large, the head of Sony or Paramount or the head of Boeing doesn't tend to be the guy who's running away from the cops at top speed.
XENI JARDIN: Well, what is it about Los Angeles in particular that has made this place the car chase capital of the world?
TAD FRIEND: Well, there are a lot of sort of pointy-headed explanations that have to do with the fact that Los Angeles has more cars registered in it than all but seven states, and there are some 22,000 miles of roads, and so that visually, if you're on the ground, it can appear as if you have endless opportunities to escape, just because there are so many roads, so many freeways. My favorite explanation was offered by Sheriff Lee Baca, the Sheriff of L.A. County, who sort of delivered a three-part exegesis about it. First of all, we have fewer cops, which is true. L.A. doesn't have many cops, so it seems like you can get away. And second of all, everyone has a car. And third of all, we have more idiots than anywhere else.
XENI JARDIN: You know, we talk a lot about the media attention on the crazy guy behind the wheel leading the chase, but the media attention on law enforcement in these chases, does that change the behavior of law enforcement over time, I mean, now that they're effectively starring in this reality show as it's being broadcast?
TAD FRIEND: Well, the Sheriff's Department shows a number of chases to its deputies when it's training them in high-speed driving, and one of the chases they show is one where a bunch of deputies beat up a guy who they captured. You know, like "Do not do this." They also announce Code 10-22 when the media helicopters are in the area, which means officially, "This has now become a newsworthy event," and unofficially sort of means, "So please don't hit anyone." Chief Bratton a few years ago tried to get the TV stations to stop showing them altogether. It had an effect of about two percent, and all the stations immediately went back to it.
XENI JARDIN: Well, this is certainly something that we see in movies, in television – dramatic television, scripted television. Is the televised L.A. reality car chase, is this something that's here to stay?
TAD FRIEND: [LAUGHS] It seems to be pretty solid. There were more than 7,000 chases last year in L.A. County. Most of them are pretty short, less than two minutes, but a lot of them go on long enough for the helicopters to get there. There are some 13 to 14 news helicopters that are looking around for this stuff, and people will watch it.
XENI JARDIN: Well, Tad, thank you very much for joining us.
TAD FRIEND: Thanks a lot.
XENI JARDIN: Tad Friend writes The New Yorker's occasional "Letter from California." [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, a funny thing happened to me on the way to the comedy club.
XENI JARDIN: This is On the Media from NPR. (FUNDING CREDITS)