Safe to Blink the Car Headlights?

Commentator Judy Muller talks about her investigation of the story that gang members are planning to shoot anyone who blinks their car headlights at them.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Urban myths have a long tradition in American popular culture. Alligators in the sewers beneath New York City, the Swiffer Wet Jet, a danger to dogs and other household pets, and Fidel Castro once tried out for the Washington Senators' baseball team. Commentator Judy Muller heard a good one in Southern California and was concerned enough to check it out.

Ms. JUDY MULLER (Assistant professor of journalism, University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication):

Urban legends have staying power because our fears have staying power. I was reminded of this recently when I got a rather scary e-mail. Police officers, it told me, had issued this warning. If you are driving after dark and see an oncoming car with no headlights on, do not flash your lights at them. The e-mail then goes on to describe a Bloods gang initiation right in which new members drive with their lights off.

When another car makes a courtesy flash to warn them, they kill everyone in that car. I know what you're thinking, you didn't fall for that one, did you? Let's put it this way, because I live in a city where freeway shootings are not unknown, I didn't think it would hurt to check it out.

The police officer I called let out a huge sigh and said, oh, not that one again. It turns out this particular urban legend has a long shelf life and dates back more than 10 years to a similar warning about the Hell's Angels. It has apparently traveled to Canada, London, and almost every major U.S. city. I would have sheepishly stuffed it away in my gullible file had I not seen a newswire advisory about an upcoming press conference by members of the Bloods street gang to dispel the slander. I felt a little better. I mean, even the Bloods had fallen for it.

I went to the press conference, one of only three reporters to show up. But then only one Blood was there, dressed in the red gang colors, a tattooed tear at the corner of his eye. He refused to give his name, saying we could identify him simply as Bloodhound. He proceeded to read that same e-mail out loud, his voice quivering with rage. Then he looked straight into the one camera that was there and said, we believe the police put this out there to make us look like criminals. I hated to interrupt this gang-banger version of, if you prick us do we not bleed speech, but I had to ask him did he know that this is an urban legend that's been circulating for years?

Bloodhound, I have to say, looked stunned. I didn't know that, he said. Yes, I replied. But I am still fascinated that you think your gang was slandered. I mean, you're not exactly the boy scouts. No, he said, that's true, adding, we're not the Masons. We don't have a 501C tax exempt number, but every group has extremists that give it a bad name. Why, after Hurricane Katrina, he boasted, the Bloods gave blood.

Who knew the Bloods were so civic minded? Even so, I'll bet that urban legend still has legs, even for those who know better. A friend told me that he knew very well that it was a myth. He'd known about it for years. But just to be safe, he says, he never, ever flashes his lights at another car.

YDSTIE: Commentator Judy Muller is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, and she's the author of Now This: Radio, Television and the Real World.

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