Some of them play a grim little game twice a day on their way to and from work by counting the telltale signs of new accidents--ashes left over from warning flares, bits of metal and glass, angry skid marks--that happened since they passed that way a few hours earlier.
At least one is under a doctor's care for stress.
Another has heard the seemingly endless screams of a person trapped in a mangled vehicle, covered with blood and yelling for God.
They use the scenic Ortega Highway, with its vistas of mountains and canyons, to commute from homes in Riverside County to jobs in southern Orange County.
And all of the commuters wonder, "Why is it we never see a police car up there on the Ortega until after something happens?"
Financial Reasons Cited
Most of them, like William McMillen, 58, and his wife, Norma, chose to live in Lake Elsinore or other Riverside County communities for financial reasons: "Housing prices and taxes are too high in Orange County, and there aren't enough good jobs in Riverside County."
No one is sure how many daily commuters there are on Ortega Highway, but after many months of making the round-trip journey himself, R.J. Palacios, 33, another Riverside County resident, says there are probably more than 100 "regulars" on the road to Orange County every morning, and about an equal number--mostly carpenters or construction workers, judging from their vehicles--going the other way. Then, of course, they switch directions at night.
But his estimate is likely to be short. An overall traffic count, including commuters, sightseers and all others, has been compiled by a Caltrans engineer, Charles H. Christopher. Although 1984 figures are not yet complete, Christoper said that in 1983, 3,500 vehicles a day traversed the full distance of about 25 miles from Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano to Grand Avenue at the foot of the mountains on the Lake Elsinore side, an increase of 500 per day over the year before.
The traffic flow goes up dramatically--22,000 per day in 1983--along the two or three miles immediately east of San Juan Capistrano, where housing and business developments are sprouting up.
However, Christopher said, that portion of the road has been widened to 28 feet, is well marked and has several traffic lights. In 1988, he said, plans call for widening that stretch, plus a couple of more miles to a gravel quarry turnoff, to 40 feet.
Beyond that, the road will remain 22 feet wide, rated by Caltrans as a "two-lane rural road," but one that, Christopher said, has twice as many accidents as the statewide average for two-lane rural roads, and four times as many fatalities.
The slaughter and suffering are recorded more graphically by the California Highway Patrol.
Relatively Level Roadway
The line dividing Orange and Riverside counties cuts the Ortega (California 74) about 14 miles northeast of Interstate 5, a stretch of relatively level roadway with gentle curves and a speed limit in most places of 55 m.p.h. It is under jurisdiction of the CHP office in south Orange County, and Officer Ken Daily said that in 1984 there were 87 accidents reported there, with 95 people injured and four killed.
Just beyond the county line, the road begins to change as it cuts into the sides of sheer cliffs, with San Juan Creek far below, and curves sharply, with many twists and turns hidden by brush and the shoulders of the bluffs.
Riverside CHP Officer John Anderson recorded 88 accidents on that stretch in 1984, leaving 55 injured and eight dead.
Both officers said motorcycles were involved in about one-third of all accidents.
Debby Messemore, who works at Endevco, a large San Juan Capistrano manufacturing firm, lives in Lake Elsinore. She has been commuting since 1979.
"My husband knows what time I should be home from work," she said. "If I'm not home by 7 p.m., he comes looking for me because he knows the things that happen.
"The Ortega is not the culprit. It is really a beautiful road . . . but the lack of consideration by many drivers and the lack of regular patrols by the CHP are some of the main problems I see," she said.
In addition to traffic accidents, Messemore said, "you have people being raped, robbed and murdered and thrown over the cliff. You have kamikaze motorcycles, cars practicing for a road race in France. But why is it you never see a police car up there until after something happens?"
No Routine Patrol
She said most people know there is no routine patrol, so they know where to go "to do these things and not get caught."
Palacios, who lives in Sunnymede with his wife and three children, agreed with Messemore that the road itself "is fairly safe."
However, he believes that the lack of patrols, thoughtlessness or rudeness of many drivers--"some guys in a pickup threw beer cans at me"--and the reluctance of some slow drivers to use turnouts on the narrow, twisting parts of the highway, cause most of the problems.