Urban legend e-mails prey on fear stemming from real-life events

Traffic Talk

October 02, 2005|By JODY K. VILSCHICK

The other day a wellmeaning neighbor e-mailed a warning about women getting attacked at gas stations. Its headline read, "Important, please read." Just as well-meaning, I forwarded it on to a dozen other people.

Then I paused. (Yes, after I had clicked the "send" button.)

The e-mail warning message, which is signed by a probably fictitious "Barbara Baker, Secretary Directorate of Training, U.S. Army Military Police School" to lend it credibility, recounts a story about a woman who had stopped at a pay-at-the-pump gas station to get gas. After she paid at the pump and filled her gas tank, she started to get back into her car.

The gas station attendant summoned her inside, insisting there had been a problem with the credit card transaction. She reluctantly went to speak to the attendant, who told her that while she was pumping gas, someone had slipped into the back seat of her car. At which point, she turned toward her car and conveniently saw her car door open and a man slip out.

The e-mail warns that there is a "report that the new gang initiation thing is to bring back a woman and/or her car." One way they do this, according to the warning, is by crawling under women's cars while they are pumping gas or at grocery stores at night. The other way is by slipping into unattended cars and kidnapping the women when they return.

The e-mail urges its readers to pass the message on to other women "young and old alike." "Be extra careful going to and from your car at night. If at all possible, don't go alone!" it exclaims.

At first glance, this seems very urgent and believable, except it's not. It's an urban legend.

You can find variations of the urban legend at urbanlegends. about.com/library/blxcrime. htm or at www.snopes.com/ horrors/robbery/slasher.asp.

One variation, using the same scenario -- a woman alone at a gas station being warned by the attendant that someone was in her car -- warns about gang members trying to cut off body parts as part of an initiation ritual.

This story preys on our perceived vulnerability in exposed, impersonal places such as gas stations.

That said, some fairly recent incidents have heightened our anxieties and make some of us more willing to believe the story. Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad -- about to face trial in Montgomery County -- and Lee Boyd Malvo in October 2002 did take aim at strangers in public, exposed and impersonal places such as store parking lots, bus stops and gas stations in Maryland and Virginia. Their killing spree resulted in the deaths of at least 10 people.

There are other car-related urban legends. One warns drivers against flashing their lights at oncoming cars that don't have their headlights on after dark. Why? Because "a new gang initiation ritual" is to have aspiring gang members drive around after dark without their headlights on; they must shoot at or into the first vehicle that flashes its lights at them.

Sound familiar?

Don Oliver detected a familiar refrain in last week's column, which discussed a community's efforts to lobby for a new overpass over U.S. 29 at Old Columbia Road.

"So here we go again. A builder purchases farmland and plans to build expensive homes on the site. The county approves and the homes are built. No mention is made of infrastructure needs. Then, after buying the houses, the community wants to see something done about the dangerous intersection. What a surprise!" Mr. Oliver said.

"Why can't the county get it through their heads that every new house is more than a source of tax revenue? These houses ought never to have been approved unless the builder was willing to foot the bill for the road improvements required to keep traffic flowing smoothly on U.S. 29 while providing safe access by the new community," he said.

What's your traffic trauma? Contact Jody K. Vilschick at TrafficTalk@comcast.net, send faxes to 410-715-2816 or mail letters to Traffic Talk, The Sun in Anne Arundel County, 60 West Street, Suite 400, Annapolis, 21401. Please include your full name and contact information or your comments will not be published or receive a response.

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