Why “Carmageddon” Didn’t Happen and What It Means for “Carmageddon II”

Mar 05

Remember Carmageddon? That great Southern California apocalypse in which thousands of motorists were stranded in their cars, no one could go to work, businesses shut down, police and fire vehicles couldn’t make it through gridlock and all of Los Angeles basically imploded?

No?

That’s because it never happened.

For all of you living outside California, “Carmageddon” was the name given by the press for the anticipated disaster of gridlock when the I-405, a major Southern California Freeway, was closed on a ten-mile stretch for two days of roadwork this last July.

In a city in which “nobody walks,” newspapers, bloggers, TV channels, and just about every media outlet imaginable for Los Angeles said that this would lead to the kind of traffic nightmare only conceivable in disaster movies with people fleeing from giant robots or aliens. I’d never heard of Carmegeddon myself, so of course when I decided to visit my family in Los Angles from New York, I placed the trip into LAX Airport squarely on the first day of this impending disaster.

“Oh, my baby boy!  My poor baby boy!  Don’t come!” my mother wailed when I called, making me feel at first that my allotment of unconditional love had finally reached an end.  “Oh no, honey.  It’s just that the ‘Carmageddon’ is coming!  If you insist on keeping your plans, bring extra food in your suitcase, just some little snacks, because you might end up getting stuck at the airport.  And think about making a reservation for a hotel in the area, because you might be stranded a few days.  Really, honey, why don’t you just reschedule or stay in New York?”

“Ah, mom, I’m sure that everything’s going to be ok,” I assured her.

And it was. When my shuttle car picked me up the airport, we zoomed over surface streets, down the 101 Freeway (which was eerily empty) and to my parent’s house in record time, without any traffic at all.

I have to be honest though. I was actually sort of disappointed. Like many closet-fatalists, I kind of wanted something to happen. Not a big thing. Just a little something. But when it was all said and done, it turned out to be just another bit of media hype. So like many false disasters in the past, and yes “Y2K,” I’m talking to you (was I the only one in 1999 that stayed up waiting for my microwave to explode and the power grid to blackout instead of getting drunk and dancing to Prince?) I was left in unrequired anxiety.

So what happened? How were so many people wrong?

Ironically, the excessive and overblown media coverage may have been precisely the reason that the event never really happened.  At least that’s what sociologist Dennis S. Mileti said when interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.  As an advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, Mileti states that the public “behaves on the perceptions formed by the information people are provided.”   In this case, the “information” was absurdly pessimistic predictions that people would be trapped in traffic for hours.  He goes on to explain that “repetitive experience biases how people perceive risk,” so that Southern Californians, who have experienced some of the worst traffic jams in the country, are predisposed to heed major traffic warnings.

So now that Southern Californians have heard the media cry wolf and nothing happened, does that mean that they’ll be even more likely to blow-off similar traffic warnings in the future?
“Lucky” for us, we don’t have long to wait for this social experiment to play itself out.

That’s right boys and girls, this summer “Carmageddon II,” as the media is already calling it, will be in full effect.  As a part of this new tradition, road crews will be shutting down the I-405 once again for 53-hours as they complete work on the Mulholland Bridge.

So will there actually be a “Carmageddon” this time?

Only if you believe the hype.  Of course, if you do believe the hype and everyone else does too, then it won’t happen.  Kind of an “I think, therefore I’m not,” sort of argument.  My head hurts.

Why can’t Los Angeles just have a nice, quiet, subway that actually goes somewhere?

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