Mark Root's pager sounded, and the familiar message on the display sent a jolt of adrenaline shooting through his system.
He rushed to the phone to alert a friend: "We've got a runner!"
The two Southern California men, one in Riverside and the other in Diamond Bar, flicked on their televisions and soon became transfixed. A stolen bus careened along three freeways, dodging cars and spewing a shower of sparks from disintegrating wheels while a line of police cars trailed close behind.
"That was spectacular," Root rhapsodized later.
The 37-year-old film producer had missed hardly a moment, thanks to a paging service that alerts subscribers whenever a police chase is televised. Root has been known to pull off the freeway to find a television, even one in an electronics store, to ensure that he doesn't miss a moment of unscripted roadway mayhem.
"I don't want to sound like a nut," he said, "but I am when it comes to these things."
Root can take comfort in the fact that he is not alone. Police pursuit mania has spread nationwide. Three networks regularly broadcast chase shows and spinoff specials. One such program, a rerun, drew a larger audience than the World Series a few years ago.
All this might create the impression of a region, even a nation, beset by mounting acts of roadway lawlessness, with authorities flailing to keep up. That would be in sharp contrast to reality.
Police say chases are decreasing in most large law-enforcement agencies throughout the country, although no one keeps nationwide statistics. In California, chases dropped 32 percent from 1995 to 2000. Pursuit-related injuries, deaths and collisions are also down, according to statewide records compiled by the California Highway Patrol. Even the Los Angeles Police Department, once the region's leader in police chases, reported 36 percent fewer chases from 1995 to 2000.
Police and law-enforcement experts attribute the decline to an overall drop in crime, better training and liability-conscious guidelines on when officers can chase a fleeing suspect.
Suspense and voyeurism
There's not yet evidence that "runners" are learning from the parade of arrests on their television screens and deciding not to flee. If they checked court files, they would find an additional disincentive: Running tends to turn a misdemeanor or minor offense into multiple felonies, and a short jail term into a multiple-year prison sentence.
But the more authorities rein in freeway chases, the more the spectacles seem to proliferate in the media and in the minds of a receptive public. It's a trend that troubles many media critics and law-enforcement officials, but shows no sign of abating.
Among pursuit fans are the hard-core enthusiasts who get an almost euphoric rush from the chases. The suspense is similar to that of watching a sporting event, they say, except that the consequences can be deadly, not only for the suspect, but also for police and innocent bystanders.
Most police chases end in an uneventful arrest, and less than half of 1 percent result in a death. But one in five leads to a collision, and many more feature near-misses that keep chase fans coming back for more.
"It's about adrenaline. It's about voyeurism," said Janice Held, a psychotherapist from Redondo Beach, Calif., who subscribes to PursuitWatch, the police pursuit paging service. "It's about immediately being in the loop."
Held initially hoped the service would keep her from getting caught in traffic jams created by the chases. But now she is hooked on the televised action, which she describes as "adrenaline in a box."
Held said she has even been tempted to walk out on patients to watch a freeway chase. "Humanistically, we are drawn by drama," she said.
Held is an anomaly in the world of chase fans, most of whom are young men, law-enforcement enthusiasts and fans of reality-based TV.
Most are like Eric DeBosque, a 39-year-old artist from Ontario, Calif. He is so fascinated by chases that he asks a friend who works at home to videotape chases when he can't get to a television.
DeBosque tosses off police jargon in describing his favorite incidents -- recalling the "PIT maneuver" authorities in San Diego County used to stop one suspect. (That's PIT as in Pursuit Immobilization Technique, a maneuver in which police try to spin a fleeing car out of control by ramming it from behind.)
"The meat of it is, for me, I just get a big kick out of watching a person getting arrested," DeBosque said.
"We have had a downpour of pursuits on television," said Ken Kuwahara, a Los Angeles-area police sergeant who founded PursuitWatch in January 1999 with only 300 customers. The Internet-based business now has more than 2,000 subscribers, each paying about $5 a month for the service, he said.
Dubious journalistic merit
Some law-enforcement officials say the broadcasts encourage drivers to flee police if they know television cameras are rolling.