In Los Angeles, road less-traveled simply does not exist

June 09, 1995|By Vincent J. Schodolski | Vincent J. Schodolski,Chicago Tribune

Los Angeles -- Maybe these things happen in other places.

AMaybe there are black bears holding up rush-hour traffic in major cities all across the country. Maybe there are lots of places where the punishment for running a red light can be spending Saturday with an out-of-work comedian.

Maybe.

But here in Los Angeles, a city where car and man appear more perfectly symbiotic than anywhere else on Earth, such things are part of a daily rhythm that marches to the beat of constantly circling helicopter reporters and traffic updates that blare from the radio every six minutes, 24 hours a day.

This is a place where 2 a.m. traffic jams are common, where people eat, shave and sometimes dress in their moving cars and where the subculture of the road has its own language, its heroes, its villains and even its guardian angels.

Anyone who has watched Steve Martin's movie "L.A. Story" and driven in Los Angeles will know that the scene in which he shoots it out on the freeway with crazed drivers battling for a space in the fast lane is only a minor exaggeration.

So what has been happening out there on the freeways lately? A lot more than just O. J. Simpson and the cops:

* A black bear recently wandered onto the 215 freeway, which edges out of the San Gabriel Mountains and into the L.A. basin. Motorists swerved to avoid hitting the beast as it lumbered across six lanes of traffic during the morning rush hour.

* A truck carrying sheep turned over on the 10 freeway just east of L.A., sending dozens of the panicked critters dashing madly ++ through a maze of Mercedes.

* Several hundred pounds of ripe strawberries dropped off the back of a truck and into the northbound lanes of the 405 freeway. Within seconds, cars were sliding into each other across a slippery film of pulp and juice.

Nails, glass, furniture, chemicals, ladders and even a two-ton steel safe have all dropped in the middle of traffic in the last few weeks. Pipe bombs casually tossed beside the road cause freeway closures several times a month.

In the course of one recent month, three people jumped to their deaths from freeway overpasses at the peak rush hour, closing major roads for several hours.

"There are a lot of strange things that go on, that is for sure," said Sgt. Ernie Garcia of the California Highway Patrol. "It's just too bad people get hurt."

Sergeant Garcia, a 24-year veteran of the patrol, has heard a good many excuses from traffic offenders during his time cruising Southern California freeways.

"A guy once told me he was entitled to use the car pool lane because he had a dead body in a coffin in the back of the car," he said. "Pregnant women always say that the fetus counts as a second passenger.

"An awful lot of people go out and buy dummies, or inflatable figures, to put in the passenger seat."

Helping the Highway Patrol keep some order on Los Angeles' snaking concrete lifelines is the army of traffic reporters who follow events and flash the news to radio and television stations around the clock.

While reporters with cameras and microphones whirl above, news is relayed by the calm and reassuring voices of traffic anchors on the ground.

Getting used to the language of the freeways can take some time. Try to decipher this typical report:

"There is a SigAlert just beyond the Orange Crush and a traffic advisory for the 5 at the El Toro Y. CalTrans work has things jammed up all the way back to the Big A. Just hang in there folks."

Give up?

The Crush, the Y and the A are all freeway landmarks. CalTrans is the California Department of Transportation. And a SigAlert is a traffic problem that will tie things up for at least 30 minutes. It is named after the pioneer radio traffic reporter who invented the warning system more than 30 years ago, Loyd Sigmon.

So what happens if you actually get going fast enough to break the speed limit, or you can't convince the real-life Broderick Crawford that the dead body in the back counts as a passenger?

Well, you could pay a hefty fine, get a point on your license and run the risk of higher insurance rates.

Or, you could pay your fine and agree to attend Comedy Traffic School.

For three weekday evenings -- or one very long Saturday -- you can wipe the slate clean by sitting through a session on the rules of the road taught by a would-be stand-up comic. Mixing humor and group therapy with the California Traffic Code is no easy task, but it sort of worked one recent Saturday.

"So what are you in for?" said instructor/comic Marcia to a motley lot of 30 offenders.

One by one, confessions were made. The guy who was only doing 37 mph in a 35 mph zone and still got nabbed. The woman who couldn't believe her '77 Toyota could get up to 82 mph. The Little League mom who piled four too many kids into the back of the wagon.

"We've heard it all here folks," intoned a mock-serious Marcia. "Let's get started. Just remember one thing. There is life after traffic school."

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