The SoCal car chase is a ghoulish institution of our own making.

Illustration by Pat Perry

Maybe this time . . .

. . . he’ll get away.

. . . she’ll wreck that crap Altima.

. . . they’ll shoot it out.

. . . there will be a nasty PIT maneuver.

. . . something will explode.

Most days, Southern Californians live in sunshine that melts into crystal-clear nights. Aside from some smog, the weather is built for 4K video. And under it are freeways so vital that locals refer to them with a definite article—always “the 101,” never “101”; “the 405,” never merely “405.” Here, running from the cops means escaping in a car.

This story originally appeared in Volume 11 of Road & Track.

And because it’s the second-largest media market in the U.S., with the greatest concentration of television and motion-picture production assets on earth, what happens on the streets and freeways becomes a television show. The Southern California car chase is one of the longest-­running, most successful, most watched, and most mesmerizing shows ever broadcast.

But keep in mind the seriousness of what’s going on. The California Highway Patrol reported that in 2018, a total of 9128 law-enforcement pursuits occurred throughout the state (exclusive of those by federal agencies). Of those, 2243 resulted in a collision, with 752 also producing injuries. Thirty-­six people died in those crashes, too: 21 who were driving the pursued vehicles, seven who were passengers, and eight who were otherwise uninvolved. At least during that year, no police officers were killed in these events.

, Understanding the Southern California Police Chase
Pat Perry

Flying Studio

Pursuits are nothing new. But their potential for attracting audiences was once hardly even imagined. After all, it wasn’t even possible. To broadcast pursuits live took creative engineering.

“In 1957, the idea of having helicopters that could carry live electronic cameras and operate as a flying television station was of little interest to the industry,” wrote longtime Los Angeles on-air reporter Stan Chambers in his 2008 book, KTLA’s News at 10: 60 Years with Stan Chambers. “Equipment was too bulky and the cost of developing a smaller, lightweight camera that could transmit good quality pictures was enormous. But in the early years KTLA’s chief engineer John Silva didn’t worry about what couldn’t be done. He concentrated on making the impossible happen.”

What Silva did was shrink a ton of TV equipment down to 368 pounds. The Bell 47G-2 helicopter could then carry the items in pods on its skids (that’s where the patient litters were when that model was used for medevac in the Korean War). But with a maximum of 260 hp, the piston-powered Bell 47G-2 was strained to haul even that weight, plus a pilot and a camera operator. And because the fuel load needed to be kept light, too, the helicopter couldn’t spend much time in the air—maybe an hour tops.

“The Bell 47 flew at about 75 mph,” explains Zoey Tur, the pilot-reporter who famously flew the first helicopter to spot O.J. Simpson’s Bronco during the June 1994 chase. “I bought the [Bell 206] Jet Ranger, which was a pretty good workhorse ­helicopter. But it was also an underperformer, an underpowered aircraft. In the Jet Ranger, we could fly no more than about 98 mph. We were limited because we had to fly with one of the doors off. Going to the [Aérospatiale] AStar, we were now flying at 150 mph, it had air-conditioning, and we had enough power to hover at altitude. It also allowed us to keep up with some of the police pursuits we were covering, to keep up with the events unfolding down below.”

, Understanding the Southern California Police Chase
Pat Perry

The AStar (also known as the Eurocopter AS350 Écureuil or the Airbus Helicopters H125) is still the standard rotorcraft for television work. “It was like going from a Model T to a Ferrari,” Tur says.

Pilot Morrie Zager of Helinet, which operates helicopters equipped for electronic news gathering (ENG)—including the one used by KABC, the local ABC TV affiliate station—out of Van Nuys Airport, also praises the AStar. “It depends on weight and balance and how many people are onboard,” he says, “but we can usually stay up about two and a half hours.”

The technology isn’t what makes pursuits compelling, though—it’s what makes them a show.


American culture is saturated with three-act structure. As anyone who has taken a community-­college screenwriting course knows, drama is based on the building blocks of introduction, development, and resolution. And police chases inherently have that.

Arriving over a pursuit, a reporter sets the scene and defines the stakes. Is it simple speeding? A fleeing felon? A carjacker? Then, even if it’s just a stolen party bus traveling near the speed limit, the reporter gathers what details they can and fills in the rest with speculation. A story develops.

There’s natural tension as the question becomes: How will the pursuit end? The audience becomes desperate to see the plot resolved, just like a movie. The events are dangerous and exciting; a conclusion is unpredictable yet seemingly inevitable. Then the chase is over. The TV station goes back to regular programming. No more drama, the event seemingly contained and complete.

, Understanding the Southern California Police Chase
Pat Perry

But unlike a movie, a pursuit is immediate. Sometimes spectators run out into the middle of pursuits or other drivers try to insert themselves into the action. It’s a movie that might drive past your home, your kids’ school, your shop. Surely, some viewers are drawn in by pure morbid curiosity. It’s a spectacle, which humans like. But that’s almost dismissive of the incredible attraction that comes with a live drama playing out on television. Much more is going on.

There’s a lot of reality television that continues to thrive. And a lot of it is even sleazier than watching California Highway Patrol cars chasing a fleeing Honda.

The Bottom Line

The Southern California TV market is crowded and intensely competitive. The major networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—own and operate four stations, and local news generates enough revenue to keep helicopters flying for all of them. Revenue is based on ratings, and car chases earn them.

A station switching from regular programming to a pursuit can see ratings double, according to some reports. Even though chases are unscheduled and thus considered breaking news, those ratings bumps still count when it comes to setting ad rates. Staying out of the game means losing it.

“In a pursuit, you always have a law-enforcement helicopter or two,” Zager says. “And sometimes you’ll have as many as five ENG helicopters. So you kind of have to space yourself accordingly between the ENG ships.”

While many TV viewers, particularly younger ones, are cutting the cord and canceling their cable subscriptions in favor of streaming options like Hulu, traditional broadcasters still have the upper hand in live sports and breaking news. Police pursuits reliably harvest eyeballs. And as long as that continues, stations will keep covering them.

Particularly in Southern California.

, Understanding the Southern California Police Chase
Pat Perry

Inevitable Change

While pursuits are still a part of Southern California culture, their nature is changing, largely because the cops have become better at managing them, and not only in the Golden State. “I started looking at this in 1980, and it was ‘chase until the wheels fall off.’ It’s not that now,” Geoffrey P. ­Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, told CNN in March. “For the first time, national statistics show more departments have restrictive policies than judgmental policies. We’re seeing more and more departments are restricting [pursuits].”

Even casual viewers have noticed that law-­enforcement agencies are having their cars hang back more while letting aircraft monitor a fleeing vehicle. Or they’re paralleling pursued vehicles rather than pressuring them. They’re also calling off more pursuits when the violations involved don’t warrant the risk inherent to chases. There are technologies to stop chases earlier, too—not just spike strips, but also entangling devices and new electronic methods. Law-enforcement agencies will grow more confident in using these techniques as time goes on. All of this may lead to police pursuits becoming less compelling as television shows.

Measuring trends based on single year-to-year comparisons may be deceiving, but at least the California Highway Patrol report for 2019 shows that pursuits, injuries, and overall deaths were down from 2018. A total of 8822 pursuits were reported, with 2054 ending in collisions and 672 producing injuries. In these pursuits, 35 people were killed—15 drivers of pursued vehicles, six passengers, and 14 uninvolved third parties. The increase in bystander deaths is troubling, but fortunately all the other numbers are better. The California Highway Patrol hasn’t yet published its 2020 and 2021 numbers, but the COVID-19 pandemic would make those comparisons irrelevant anyhow.

Evolving technology is also changing the coverage of law-enforcement pursuits. The spread of fast 5G networks and smartphones means that virtually anyone can cover breaking news. It might not be far-fetched for an enterprising news director at some station to stream live video from inside a car being pursued.

Meanwhile, drones may take over much of the work that helicopters currently do. Drones are vastly cheaper than the $1500 to $2000 per hour that it costs to keep a news helicopter up. And they can transmit their video over cell networks instead of needing to maintain line-of-sight connections to microwave-transmission towers. A drone can also fly lower and get into places helicopters can’t. “Drones are the future,” says Tur, who no longer works in news.

Then there are proposals to equip cars with mandatory “kill switches” that would allow law enforcement to shut down a vehicle before it can skedaddle off on a chase. That can be done on some vehicles already, such as those equipped with GM’s OnStar. But no law has yet been enacted, and if legislation is passed, it would be decades before such systems become ubiquitous.

What should change is the perception that chases are merely entertainment. When the pursuit ends on television, there are still consequences to come. The injured need treatment, the drivers face legal consequences, and, at least sometimes, the dead must be buried.

What will not change is the human need to tell and hear stories. After all, occasionally a driver does get away from the cops.

In the back seat of Helinet’s KABC Air7HD ­copter, camera operator Marcel Melanson has a controller in his lap. It moves the Sony camera hanging off the front of the aircraft on a beautifully machined aluminum arm that’s stabilized and can focus on objects hundreds of feet below. He is using a modern tool of storytelling. And story­telling is something that Southern Californians pride themselves on doing well.


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