Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

« Previous Post | Readers' Representative Journal Home | Next Post »

Eyes on the road, and on drivers -- legally

June 12, 2008 |  9:00 am

Morning_gridlockLike one of those red-light cameras at an intersection, Sunday's "Brake Light Blues" offered a snapshot of what seven drivers were doing on 7:30 a.m. on a drizzly Friday while in the middle of their commute, near the city's busiest freeway interchange. While it brought more than 60 thank-you notes to The Times, it also raised the concern of at least one reader, who wondered how The Times was able to track down the identities of those drivers.

The Times photographed the gridlock at the intersection of the 110 at the 10 and, as the story put it, "We then tracked down as many drivers as we could -- running their plates through the Department of Motor Vehicles -- to find out what their stories might say about how we live, in a way that statistics alone cannot."

Wrote Wally Roberts from San Clemente in an e-mail: "Who gave The Times lawful access to my DMV records? I thought my home address was private data, available only to the police and the courts, and then only with a reasonable purpose. Section 1808.21 of the California Vehicle Code is intended to prevent such intrusions into what the state protects as confidential information."

Roberts wasn't one of the drivers profiled in the story; he is a reader who assumed that The Times had been given information unfairly by the DMV.

Roberts is right in part about the privacy issue: California tightened its laws after the 1989 killing of 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a fan who had obtained her home address from the DMV. Since that time, the DMV hasn't divulged home addresses to people presenting a California license plate number.

The DMV does, however, give out names based only on the license plate. Said Goffard, "The DMV only gave us the car owners' names and no other identifying information, and it was mostly with uncommon names that we were able to track some down, with directory assistance and other public records."

That's how readers found out that at 7:30 a.m. on that drizzly Friday, art teacher John Kannofsky was en route from Highland Park to the LAX area and thinking, "What idiot made a wrong turn somewhere and got clipped?" Technician Carlos Paredes was pressing to get from work in Torrance to his home to Silver Lake so he could get his two sons to school. Markus Schmid, who lives in Venice and works in Monrovia, was listening to the Mark and Brian show on KLOS-FM to try to improve his English; and John Evans, who spends hours on the road daily as part of his job as process server, was listening to the Dazz Band's "Let It Whip" on HOT 92.3 FM.

Others inching along that patch of asphalt at that moment included saleswoman Alexis Bilitch, executive assistant Janet London and accountant Diane Duncan.

The seven whose lives intersected on The Times' front page were the drivers who emerged from a list of 70 license plates, compiled from a minute's worth of images shot by Goffard, editor Sue Horton and photographer Richard Hartog.

The study of the heart of a traffic jam culminated one morning last November, when the three met on the bridge at 7th Street over the 110. The plan: For 60 seconds, Horton would take photos of the right lanes of the southbound traffic; Goffard would use a videocamera to shoot the left lanes; Hartog would cover the northbound lanes.

They started shooting at 7:30, stopped at 7:31, then got back to the newsroom in a hurry: Goffard wanted to get to the drivers while their memories were relatively fresh.

The three copied down license plates numbers from their photos, then Goffard started calling the DMV to read off the license plate numbers; over the course of an hour or two he got 70 names. (Law enforcement, government agencies and organizations, like The Times, with commercial accounts, can get the information over the phone; members of the public must submit requests in writing.)

Between their calls to directory assistance and searches online and through public records, Goffard, Horton and researcher Maloy Moore found contact information for about 30 to 40 of the drivers. Goffard started leaving telephone messages immediately.

Many people didn't call back. Others expressed in various ways that they were alarmed at the prospect of a reporter seeing their car and tracking them down (some snapped at the reporter, others hung up). Many asked, "How did you find me?" Even some of the people who ended up in the story were initially reluctant to talk. By midafternoon Goffard had done a few interviews, and within 24 hours he'd done eight. (One driver reached wasn't included because editors felt the story was complete.)

Goffard checked with radio stations to confirm the drivers' recollections of what was on the air at that exact moment, from Bill Handel's talking about Berkeley's homeless squatters on KFI-AM, to HOT 92.3 FM's playing that 1982 funk classic.

No broken laws here; it was somewhat tedious research (not unlike the usual detailed research and culling of information done for most stories) that answered the question posed near the start of his story: "You never get to know your neighbors, all the sufferers stacked up left and right, ahead and behind. You never learn why they're taking up space on your freeway at this particular hour, when you urgently have to be someplace. Seriously, where are all these people going?"

Sunday's piece was one of a four-part series on traffic in the region, and almost 300 readers have responded. The stories, and comments, can be found at these links:

Part 1: Going nowhere fast

Part 2: Gridlock on the loose

Part 3: Cargo has L.A. traffic at a crawl

Part 4: A better commute

Photo by Richard Hartog  shows the 110 Freeway downtown near the 10 interchange. Reporter Christopher Goffard, his editor and the photographer took pictures for exactly one minute then tracked down a handful of the drivers seen here.