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Trumpets, Phones, Tans on Wheels: Creative L.A. Commuting

April 19, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

There he was, cruising the southbound Hollywood Freeway, the young Mick Jagger lookalike in his vintage Jaguar . . . turning the car into a mobile tanning parlor by cupping a large sheet of aluminum foil under his chin as he sang along with the music.

And there, on the San Diego Freeway, moving north in a silver limo, was columnist Art Buchwald, telephoning his secretary in Washington. According to Buchwald, his secretary gave him a message to call L.A. radio talk show host Michael Jackson about setting up a time to appear on the program. So Buchwald called and Jackson decided to interview him on the spot, transforming the limo into an instant radio studio. While on the air, Buchwald reported that other driver/listeners had spotted him on the 405 and were waving.

And, of course, there they are, every morning on any Southern California freeway or street, those drivers who are gulping coffee, shaving, applying makeup, styling their hair, using toothbrushes and dental floss, learning to speak Spanish, deep breathing, performing isometric exercises, dictating taped memos, even transcribing tapes--all while they somehow manage to drive to work.

As you might have predicted, police officers are not amused by Southern California motorists' proclivities for doing one or two or six things at once while operating their vehicles. When it comes to the amazing assortment of enterprises people manage to accomplish in moving cars, Los Angeles Police Department and California Highway Patrol officers have seen it all, much of which is not printable in a family newspaper.

The law is not very specific about what California motorists can and cannot do in their cars. As LAPD officer Fabian Lizarraga explained, "Generally, it's not against the law to do anything with your hands while you're driving--as long as it doesn't interfere with your control of the vehicle. You can't be wearing anything or have anything in your car that will impair your vision."

While officers have begun ticketing motorists for wearing stereo headphones and obstructing their hearing while they drive, Lizarraga pointed out that headphones can still be worn if only one ear is covered.

So, it would seem, a skilled driver could, theoretically at least, play a trumpet to the accompaniment of the radio while cruising down the freeway to work. (Such a feat has actually been witnessed here.)

"If they're playing it with one hand and they're not swinging it all over the place, if they still have full control of the vehicle and have their eyes open to all sides, it wouldn't be a problem. But it would probably be kind of hard to do," Lizarraga said. "You're liable to do something wrong and get ticketed--not for playing the trumpet, but for lane straddling perhaps or getting too close to the car in front of you."

Case in point: LAPD officer Kevin Williams recalls pulling up in a patrol car behind a car stopped at a red light. A woman in the passenger seat leaned over to kiss the driver. The light turned green and the car didn't move as the couple became less and less aware of the rest of the world around them.

"They sat there through the whole phase of the light from green to yellow to red again," Williams said. "When the light turned red, the driver went to proceed into the intersection, noticed the light was red and stopped. When the light turned green again, he started through the intersection. We pulled him over for failing to go on the green. And we warned his girlfriend that she could have gotten a ticket for interfering with the driver. They were really embarrassed."

According to CHP officer Jill Angel, a substantial number of tickets are issued each year to motorists who attempt to read their morning newspapers or romance novels while driving. The tickets are not for reading per se, she clarified, but rather for traveling at an unsafe speed given the conditions inside the car (the only speed considered safe for reading being 0 m.p.h.). The citations have generally held up in court, Angel said.

But reading is far from the most astonishing mobile feat CHP officers have witnessed of late. Lyle Whitten, a CHP public affairs officer who spent 20 years on the road, remembered writing several tickets to drivers who changed places with passengers while their vehicles were rolling.

In each case, Whitten presumed the driver knew he or she was being followed by a police car for other offenses and wanted to avoid an additional citation for drunk driving. "Each time, the drivers were so drunk they didn't realize we could see them through their rear windows," he said.

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