PASADENA, CALIF. -- Two preteen-age boys of my acquaintance wanted to see the new James Bond movie Sunday, so I put them in the car and headed toward Interstate 210, my usual route to the big multiscreen theater complexes of eastern Pasadena.

After half a block, I reconsidered. I turned right onto California Boulevard, a long residential street, studded with stoplights, that would get me there eventually.

Freeway phobia had hit me. More than 30 random shootings, with four people dead and several wounded, have frightened many of us in southern California in the last two weeks.

I marveled at my behavior and then wondered, as I waited for the light to change near Caltech, how long such fears would last.

We have been inundated with psychological explanations, some contradictory, for the sudden surge of violence on this area's principal transportation routes.

Summer heat, growing congestion and pervasive publicity each have taken a share of the blame.

Freeway stress, we are told, has increased naturally as rush-hour congestion -- according to state highway engineers -- has spread to more than 450 miles of Los Angeles County freeway, double its reach in 1970.

Yet a detailed look at the circumstances of each shooting in the last six weeks reveals that most of the incidents did not occur at rush hour and did not seem to involve commuters. Raymond W. Novaco, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, noted Sunday in the Los Angeles Times that research on "road warrior behavior" is difficult, since "one would not want to induce it experimentally." But his work with Daniel Stokols indicates a weak link between highway stress and violence.

"It is indeed true," he wrote, "that continued exposure to traffic congestion elevates resting blood pressure, increases negative mood states, lowers tolerance for frustration and can lead to even more impatient driving habits.

However, physiological arousal, irritability and impatience are qualitatively different from assaultive behavior."

To pull out a gun and fire at another motorist requires "an override of inhibitions about harm-doing," Novaco concluded.

In this case, a few people already riding on the edge of some severe emotional problems become intoxicated by the anonymity of freeway driving, and whatever chemicals they might be ingesting, and let fire.

No one has died from a roadway shooting here since July 26. Most of those fired upon last week reported that their assailants did not hit anything, creating the suspicion that some are in it for pure, perverse fun, aiming to scare, not kill.

Investigation of the one recent freeway murder that has produced arrests indicates that the gunman knew a passenger in the victim's car and was seeking revenge after a disagreement. It is the rare psychotic, apparently, who can summon the will to murder for no reason.

In periods of bizarre violence such as this, many of us Californians forget how long we have accepted death on the freeway with the nonchalance of sky divers doing stunts at 10,000 feet.

My wife insists, for the sake of our three children, that when we travel overseas we ride in separate airplanes to get to the same destination.

Yet like anyone born and raised within two miles of a freeway, she does not object to piling us all into the van and driving down Interstate 5 to Anaheim, even if statistics show that is much more dangerous than flying to China.

One other element in the highway shootings also escapes much attention. Invariably, news stories focus on highway stress, or record heat, or the search for thrills. Rarely is much said about the guns.

In 1982, Californians overwhelmingly defeated a ballot measure to register and limit handguns in the state.

Many politicians think Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley would have been elected governor that year had he not supported that ill-fated initiative.

Since then much of the heart has gone out of the gun-control movement here.

Police officers on recent interview shows have mentioned their frustration with laws that make carrying an unregistered firearm only a misdemeanor, but the moderator soon changes the subject to the roots of highway stress.

Barbara Lautman, communications director for Handgun Control Inc. in Washington, said she thinks the freeway shootings will draw attention to new efforts to penalize illegal use of firearms. Those of us who have lived here most of our lives have our doubts.

We have yet to see a hot-weather story, even one as horrific as this, last very long into the new football and television seasons. The Los Angeles Times put the latest shootings in a brief item on Monday's news summary page.

And after I dropped the boys at the theater, I adjusted my sunglasses, headed up the I-210 on-ramp and, without remembering my worries of a half hour before, pushed the accelerator up to 55 as fast as I could.