If you live in Southern California and you tuned in to the 10 o'clock news last night, you couldn't help but watch the snail's pace car chase between police and the unknown driver of a rather expensive Bentley sedan. The subsequent stand-off lasted longer than the news coverage could allow, and at 12:41 a.m. this morning, the driver committed suicide. According to this article from the L.A. Times, this chase was the fifth in the Los Angeles area in past two weeks, not to mention the second just yesterday. Ever since I moved to California, I've been fascinated by these spectacles, but not just because of the media hype that surrounds them. (And yes, last night's chase betrayed shades of O.J., what with its low speeds, and an expensive white vehicle that implied the potential for celebrity.) I'm drawn to these chases for the same reasons I'm repulsed by pratfall prone underdog-driven comedies like Meet the Parents -- I always project myself into the starring role.
The psychology of the car chase can be evaluated in three stages: (1.) before the chase, (2.) the chase itself, and (3.) the stand-off. In this case, the four hour long incident began when someone called the cops about the suspect assaulting his girlfriend, and when officers arrived, the guy just drove away slowly, apparently fearing confrontation. Other chases usually begin when suspects refuse to pull over for traffic violations, and in both circumstances, an obvious conscious decision is made to refuse submission to the authorities. That's easy enough to understand; the mentality is either, "Screw the police, I've done nothing wrong," or "I'm caught! I gotta get out of here!" The safety, security, and presumed anonymity of one's own car make the choice to run that much easier; all at once the car becomes a weapon and a shield. For the scared and the guilty, it appeals to the basest of human desires -- the need for shelter.
I'm most fascinated by the minutes between stages one and two, when the driver decides to power through his initial sense of rebellion and make it an apparent lifestyle. As spectators, we often wonder, "Where is he going? Doesn't he know he can't get away?" At that point of despair, I don't think the suspect really is fleeing the crime anymore; he's fleeing the decision he made to flee, realizing he's created a situation bigger than himself. Most times, the chase circles the same area where it started, and in last night's case, it came full circle, to the same street, proving that, for all the ground covered, the real journey was an internal one. I always imagine, what is this guy listening to on the radio? Is he analyzing how many miles to the gallon he has left? Is he crying, swearing, praying? Does he have a plan? Or is every time that helicopter spotlight pierces the windshield a reminder of how the very problems that began this pursuit have become manifest into a full fledged media event?
The stand-off is the most tragic part of this process, though, as both the suspect's car and mind stop racing long enough to realize the gravity of it all. Most adrenaline-drenched imaginations probably picture the worst -- that police will throw you to the ground, beat you, sic the K9 unit on you for fun, and throw you in a jail cell forever. Sitting in the middle of the street, police at the ready behind me, I know I'd look around the cab of my car, memorizing its contours, touching its upholstery, figuring those moments to be the last of my own for a long time. How surreal to be in a state that projects the only possible future ahead an eternity in prison, that running was even an option in the first place. Of course, I know suspects have other motivations and mentalities for fleeing, but the common man caught in an unexpected situation like that knows only what he's seen on television.
Which brings this thought full circle, as to why I'm enthralled by the Southern California car chase. For every O.J. or Bentley, we see dozens of common folk and beat-up Hondas on the wrong side of the helicopter spotlight. How close are any of us to the brink of, "Is that a cop? Oh, screw it, I can outrun 'im! Who needs a $150 speeding ticket in this economy, eh?" Are we really just slack-jawed rubber-neckers at the promise of a breaking news story car chase . . . or are we researching our own possible future?