The intersection of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards secured a place in cinematic history in 1916, when film director D. W. Griffith resurrected ancient Babylon on the site in an immense, spectacular set for the film "Intolerance."
Today the junction holds a distinction in the more mundane affairs of city transportation. Hollywood and Sunset boulevards are joined by Hillhurst Avenue to form the second-most dangerous major intersection in Los Angeles, city transportation officials say.
"All the lights, signs and streets just confuse a lot of people," local businessman Richard Vaughn said of the intersection in the East Hollywood-Los Feliz area. "If they're not used to it, they just try to get out of the way."
More than 52,000 vehicles daily are drawn from six directions into the vortex, where most of the streets suddenly change names. Drivers have scant seconds to decipher information from dozens of traffic signals and signs suspended above the multilane roads. Pedestrians scramble to cross the 200-foot expanse, at least twice the average width of city intersections.
"Anytime you have more than two streets coming together, you're going to have a greater potential for accidents," said Robert Takasaki, city transportation engineer. "That's especially so when they are major streets like these."
The traffic volume, the layout of the roads and motorists' inattention or confusion combined to cause 1.8 accidents per million vehicles in 1985, the second-highest rate among major Los Angeles intersections, transportation officials said. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Main Street, a seemingly simpler four-way intersection south of downtown, ranked first among major crossroads, with 2.2 accidents per million.
The rate of accidents per million vehicles is the most accurate measure of the danger of an intersection because it takes into account how heavily traveled it is, said Tom Conner, a principal city transportation engineer.
In actual number of accidents, without regard to traffic frequency, Hollywood-Sunset-Hillhurst ranked ninth among all intersections in the city, with 20 collisions in 1985, the latest statistics available, Conner said.
Earlier this century, most of the activity there took place at Griffith's studio. The intersection and the director's elaborate movie sets are recreated in the current film "Good Morning, Babylon."
Today, a Safeway parking lot and an assortment of small businesses ring the intersection, including the Vista theater, a Chinese restaurant, an adult bookstore, an auto parts store and a gasoline station.
Vaughn manages a check-cashing business in the 4400 block of Hollywood Boulevard. His storefront windows afford a wide-angle view of the chaos in the streets.
"Lights are changing, there are too many signs, traffic is moving all around you and cars are honking," he said. "People don't know which way to go, so they just stop in the middle."
Much of the confusion comes from the change in street names, merchants said.
"People know where they want to go, but they don't know if they're going to be going that way when they come out the other side," said Ben Martinez, a street vendor who sells flowers at Sunset Boulevard and Virgil Avenue.
Street Changes Names
Approaching from the north, Hillhurst Avenue inexplicably turns into Virgil Avenue south of Sunset Boulevard, which flows from the west and funnels into smaller Sunset Drive on the east. At the widest stretch of the intersection, Hollywood Boulevard fades into Sunset Boulevard, which re-emerges and continues southeast toward Silver Lake.
Why do the names change? "No logic to it," city engineering aide John Chappell said.
City workers have posted signs with arrows to direct drivers to the surrounding streets. But the signs may only add to some motorists' confusion, officials said.
"The problem is that many people just aren't used to seeing that much information in one place," Chappell said. "But, if they're not ready for that, then they're not ready for that intersection."
Officials acknowledged that Hollywood-Sunset-Hillhurst is complicated even for regular passers-by. They said city workers have tried to simplify matters by resurfacing the Hollywood-Sunset stretch, adding left-turn pockets and improving striping to guide motorists through the intersection.
The bustling complexity makes turns especially challenging. Honking horns prod Sunset Boulevard motorists baffled by signals simultaneously displaying a green arrow and red light.
Unwary drivers on Hillhurst heading left onto Sunset Boulevard suddenly stop after a few feet and block the intersection when they confront a red light at the mouth of Sunset. The ensuing blare of horns and onrush of cars eventually force them to keep moving.
Chappell explained that, despite the red light, the absence of "limit lines" indicates drivers should not stop. Limit lines are wide, white stripes on the pavement at the front of lanes that mark the boundary for waiting vehicles.
"The problem is, a lot of people just don't know basic traffic rules," he said.