American Times: Los Angeles: Pager service tip-offs for car chase addicts

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AS THEY say around here, it was a real doozy. A wanted criminal, in a black four-wheel-drive, speeding away from a column of police squad cars through the San Fernando Valley - all captured, live, on television.

"This could be interesting. Zoom in! Zoom in!" shouted the over-excited KCAL correspondent to the cameraman as they swooped above the action in a helicopter. The suspect managed to jam three police cars in a loop thanks to a deft 360-degree turn before roaring up on to the pavement of a busy shopping street in Van Nuys.

"There's someone with a child approaching the car. Oh no, get away, get away!" the correspondent, Larry Welk, pleaded with the two figures appearing on the television screen. It was hard to tell if he was dreading the prospect of a pedestrian getting kidnapped or flattened, or if he was relishing it.

By now the other local networks, Fox and UPN and KCBS, were interrupting regular programming to bring their own footage of the chase. After what seemed an endless tease between pursuer and pursued, the four-wheel-drive zoomed into a shopping centre car park, crashed through a fence into a storage area and finally came to an ignominious halt after trying to ram a squad car blocking its exit.

"We have gunfire! We have gunfire!" screeched Larry Welk. And sure enough, as the suspect was at last apprehended, he was hauled on to an ambulance to be treated for bullet wounds.

Welcome to Los Angeles' favourite obsession, the television car chase. There's usually one every couple of days and, thanks to the ever-vigilant television helicopter teams that scour the smoggy skies above the City of Angels, no twist or turn goes unbroadcast for more than the few minutes it takes to locate the scene of the drama. Soap operas and daytime chatshows get kicked off the air to make room for live coverage, and then the news bulletins rehash it all later in the day.

Who knows why everyone is so obsessed with them, but they are. Maybe it's because Los Angeles is the perfect backdrop for such mini- dramas - vast, anonymous and chock-a-block with roadways. Maybe it's because the chases are just like scenes out of Hollywood action films, complete with the assurance that the hot pursuit will eventually lead to some tight spot or dead end where the perpetrator will at last get his (or her) come-uppance.

Whatever the reason, they are certainly money-spinners, and not just for the networks whose viewing figures soar while the chase is on. Ask Ken Kuwahara, for a start. He is an enterprising former cop who has come up with the idea of a paging service for television car chases. Pay him a few dollars a month and he will alert you the second a juicy chase pops up on the small screen.

That may sound sick (indeed the complaints section on his website includes a message proclaiming "It's sick!") but the service has proved to be a roaring success since its inception in January. There are even cash prizes for those who alert the service to a chase.

Thanks to Mr Kuwahara, subscribers were able to tune in to last month's split-screen bonanza, in which two chases carried on simultaneously, or to last week's excitement as the alleged miscreant's car spun out of control, hurtled through a brick wall and was left suspended in mid-air with wreckage and tumbling bricks clattering all around.

Most of the subscribers to the Pursuit Watch Network are young men with testosterone to spare, but not all. "I for one am tripped when my pager goes off and it says HOT PURSUIT," one grandmother writes on the service's website. "If I'm at home, the scanner and TV goes on and the map comes up on my computer to follow 'em."

The mother of all LA car chases was O J Simpson's unsuccessful attempt to elude the police in his white Ford Bronco in 1994 - a chase that not only made national and international headlines but was also captured in its entirety by a traffic-monitoring helicopter. By now all the local networks have helicopters dedicated entirely to car chases and correspondents who spend their lives in the air praying for a really juicy shoot-out or high-speed caper.

It's not all fun. Last year, 31 bystanders were killed during police chases in Los Angeles - the highest rate of any US city - and there are plenty of people who suspect the foolhardy high jinks leading to such accidents are due at least in part to the presence of the television cameras.

"Most of the people who do this aren't the really bad guys," explains Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist. "Serious criminals try to blend in. The people who run do it for stupid reasons - they're afraid of the points on their insurance, or police once beat them up, or they don't want their parents to know they borrowed the car."

Stupid, perhaps; dangerous, certainly. But, for the networks, the pager junkies and the viewers, it's still great entertainment.