Naturally, we're all a little tensed up about what's going on along the Los Angeles freeway network. After all, the daily commute for anyone these days in any city is enough of an ordeal without having some homicidal maniac blazing away with a semi- automatic just because you forgot to signal a lane change. Having once lived in Southern California, I am a bit incredulous about all this car-to-car shooting. The folks in Surf City are generally so laid back that anything this side of an airborne nuclear burst hardly raises their blood pressure.

Nevertheless, the message is clear -- the number of freeway shootings is well into the double digits -- five people have been killed since mid-June and 11 injured -- and some law-enforcement officials and urban experts are fearful this might turn into some kind of national fad, as if bad manners and vehicular hostility were something new, which they're not. A lot of drivers have stories to tell that predate the L.A. shootings. My own most frightening experience came on Interstate 95 near Fort Lauderdale last year when I followed a pair of cars -- a Camaro and a Cadillac Seville that were exchanging such niceties as cutting each other off and spiking their brakes as they proceeded through heavy traffic. As the Seville roared down an exit ramp, the driver -- a well-dressed guy in his thirties -- whipped out a 9mm Mauser and aimed it at the Camaro. For a brief moment, I was in the line of fire, but the weapon was merely waved in anger and the tense moment passed.

Such experiences do give one the sense that the L.A. disease might become a national epidemic. And then how will you maintain life and limb on the increasingly wild roads of our nation? Let us discuss a few truly defensive driving techniques:

Bulletproofing your car: Perhaps the best solution is an armored vehicle. Not one of those cash carriers for banks, but an automobile decked out with Kevlar reinforcement and glass that bullets bounce off of -- a first-class symbol that you can't be hassled. The downside of this plan is two-fold. Fitting your Caprice with a full suit of armor can be expensive -- about 50 grand for the basic job (tear-gas jets and gun ports not included). Worse yet, the shielding can add as much as a ton of extra weight to the old bus, which considerably diminishes performance and fuel economy.

Meeting fire with fire: Most of the reports I have read from Los Angeles indicate that the freeway shooters have been using tiny handguns. It might make you think that the way to go is to carry a bigger popgun, maybe something in the .44 magnum line. However, discharging one of these beauties can do serious damage to your eardrums. Worse yet, the recoil might cause you to lose control of your driving. Firing out the window at a moving target while driving one-handed can be tricky at best. Overall, the use of weaponry is a bad idea unless you have a prior criminal record, in which case your parole officer or mouthpiece can no doubt get you out of any ensuing scrapes and have you back on the street in hours.

Bumping and grinding: Law- enforcement types in California have been counseling folks to "cool it" when confronted by an irate or unstable driver. This is a wimpy way for a red-blooded American to react in the face of danger and is often rejected out of hand. Operating on the assumption that the best defense is a good offense, some drivers prefer sideswiping the offending idiot or bunting him in the rear end (over-the-shoulder aiming being extremely difficult, it is unlikely he'll get off a clean shot while being whacked in the back). Of course this can damage your automobile, and who is to know how your boss will react when he spies the bullet holes and the caved-in grillwork of your BMW. But as they say, what price honor?

Pretending it's Halloween: For the truly cautious, a surplus Army helmet might be a reasonable purchase, but heavy headgear can be fatiguing and ruins the acoustics of fine stereo. Better yet might be a disguise -- perhaps as a nun or priest (gambling, of course, that you don't run up against some demented anti-cleric) or a Red Cross volunteer (presuming a potential assassin doesn't recall that his grandfather had to pay for cigarettes during the Battle of Belleau Wood). The ultimate cover would be to drive to work in a Good Humor ice cream truck, the sight of which touches a soft spot in even the most violent of hearts. And if things really get tense, you could unload a couple of boxes of Eskimo Bars on your tormentor's windshield.

Getting desperate: There are other more drastic alternatives, such as quitting work or relying on public transportation. The former has a certain economic downside, including bankruptcy and starvation, and should only be used when the Beltway begins to look like a street in downtown Beirut. The latter also has its inherent dangers -- remember Bernhard Goetz?

The only workable solution to surviving on the freeways is to continue to operate in a business-as-usual mode, driving with good sense and a modicum of caution. I have always felt the measure of good driving is whether you can proceed without ever hindering anyone else's progress or intruding into their "space." If you can do that, there should be little trouble in your path. But as a precautionary measure, let me leave you with a couple of names: Hess and Eisenhardt. They're in Cincinnati. They build terrific armored cars. ::