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Carmageddon: Why drivers stayed off the roads Saturday

July 16, 2011 |  7:14 pm

LonelyHighway2

So why did motorists stay off the road? Was it the stern warnings from public officials? Was it the name  "Carmageddon" and other apocalyptic rhetoric? Or something else?

Dennis S. Mileti, a sociologist, has spent his career analyzing human behavior around natural and man-made disasters. He advises everyone from the Department of Homeland Security to hazmat workers on how to deliver effective warnings that make people pay attention without panicking and guide them to take precautions and other appropriate actions.

In this case, he said, the message got through because of the blanket of media coverage.

PHOTOS: 'Carmageddon' closes the 405 Freeway

“The public doesn’t change its behavior on its own,” Mileti said. “It behaves on the perceptions formed by the information people are provided.”

Without such extensive coverage on television, radio and newspapers, it would have been impossible for Metro, Caltrans, the mayor or Los Angeles County officials “to break through the clutter of everyday life to reach so many people.”

It would have been possible, he said, to deploy the reverse-911 system to call households and alert people who live in the immediate area. But that would likely have reached only a portion of the people driving the quarter-million vehicles every Saturday that use the major artery that connects Los Angeles International Airport and the Westside to the San Fernando Valley.

In the end, the official warnings were repeated often enough by the media that they stuck. And the message resonated with Southern California drivers who are all familiar with getting caught in traffic jams. Most can recount nightmarish experiences emblazoned into their brains.

"Repetitive experience biases how people perceive risk," said Mileti, the former director of the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Center, a repository of social and behavioral science related to hazards and disasters. So the traffic-wary Southern Californians, he said, "may be predisposed to stay home.”

What will happen next year when officials shutter the 405 Freeway again to take down the other half of the Mulholland Drive bridge?

"It could be different next time when you have son of Carmageddon," Mileti said.  "It will be a direct consequence of the breadth and depth of media coverage devoted to it.”

RELATED:

Carmageddon video: Woman drives down an empty 405 Freeway

Carma que? No Carmageddon effect on the 110 Freeway

Carmageddon: Mayor delighted to see empty streets

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: The 405 Freeway becomes a lonely highway on Day 1 of the closure. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times

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