“Duane, why don’t you go play on the freeway….” I heard this countless times from my father growing up, and with good reason. In my youth, I knowingly, and at times purposely, drove my parents nuts! And whenever my dad reached his limit, he’d often tell me to “go play on the freeway.” This, I knew, be it off color, was a term of endearment.
My father, a retired L.A. police offcer, now 84 years old, was stern, but also always loving and very real with me growing up. My Dad knew I knew (even as a 7-year-old child!) the thought of entering the freeway, let alone playing on the freeway, on foot, was just plain stupid, not to mention illegal! Today, however, what was once universally considered dumb, even by a kid, is just another reminder of something else most children know: “In the absence of consequences, people will do whatever they want!” I’m often reminded of my father’s words, how our culture is changing, how rules, norms and even laws for civility are being turned upside down.
On Oct. 28, freeway signs all over Los Angeles, including Santa Clarita, were lit up with the bold message, “ALWAYS WATCH FOR PEDESTRIANS.” For the past decade or so, I’ve noticed an increase of foot traffc on Southern California freeways! Recently on Highway 170, in morning traffc through North Hollywood, I saw a man (clearly out of his mind, sadly) carrying a bicycle! The increased foot traffic and homeless communities on the freeways in the San Fernando Valley, and downtown Los Angeles, resemble sets for “The Walking Dead.” But, the freeway scenes and people are shockingly surreal! Even though it is illegal to be on the freeway without a car, SoCal freeways have become free spaces to live, and move openly with, or without a vehicle. So, how did we get to a place where conduct that is unsafe, unwise and illegal, has become an “always watch for”?
The liberation of our freeways is a reflection of our society’s ever-expanding empowered shift from civility to the celebration of personal autonomy. Individuals are encouraged in all aspects of life to simply do whatever pleases them at any given moment. Note the first word in the bold freeway message above, “always,” “Always watch for pedestrians.” The only thing missing — currently — are green lights and “walk” signs. Regardless, people are being given a clear go-ahead to behave poorly. Dangerously. Tragically, this enabled hazardous and selfish behavior demands that we always be diligently watchful for, and aware of, people making poor choices that affect the rest of us trying to live by the rules. And this abandonment of honoring norms meant to keep us all safe is not just limited to our freeways, but is ever expanding. Again, as every child knows, “If you give a kid an inch, they’ll work it for miles, at every angle, and every opportunity imaginable!”
On Nov. 15 I had breakfast at Crazy Otto’s in Acton, in a pleasant shopping center in a beautiful rural neighborhood. The Sheriff’s Department was present too. The front door of the restaurant was being boarded up at the time. During the morning hours someone had broken in. Days earlier in the same shopping center, video surveillance recorded “eight people” breaking into the liquor store and ransacking the place, as two drivers waited in a car parked in front. Also, in the same shopping center — also in recent days — the flower shop had been broken into. The waitress in Crazy Otto’s told me, “There are no police patrolling the area.” Considering our city, state and nation’s shrinking police presence, combined with the fact that smash-and-grab crime (aka burglary), ever since the summer of 2020, has ceased to be a crime of consequence (not unlike walking on the freeway), why wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, autonomously minded-individuals smash and grab if they want to?
In the absence of repercussions for bad behavior and those who traditionally protect us, self preservation demands that we always be watchful. If California voters continue to vote for the same people, policies and party, combined with having a new L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna practicing a proper reverence for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and our district attorney George Gascón, things should improve! How could they not? Until then, however, maybe a more honest freeway message would be: “Always beware of people behaving badly. They are currently permitted to do so. And, they are everywhere. BE CAREFUL!”