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THE SCENIC ROUTE : Driving for Fun? In Orange County? You've Got to Be Kidding--or Are You?

June 16, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Given the choice of an IRS audit or what we used to call a Sunday drive, the average county commuter probably would pick the audit.

The idea of driving for fun in Orange County has become about as alien to most of us as E.T.

California Highway Patrol officer Bruce Lian, for example, bursts out laughing at the suggestion. "At 4 in the morning, maybe," he says.

And traffic engineer Warren Seicke of Brea gasps at the thought. "We've got enough problems without encouraging people to drive that road," he said when he heard that Carbon Canyon Road, one of his worst headaches, was on our list of favorites.

My own children weren't even sure what I meant. At 10 and 12 years old, they have yet to even step on a gas pedal. But already, they see driving as a chore. "You mean just drive, not go anywhere? Sit in the back of the car all afternoon? Couldn't we just stay home and clean our rooms instead?"

It is also a chore for most adults in the county, more than 40% of whom spend at least 40 minutes on the road each day just getting to work and back, according to the 1987 Orange County Annual Survey.

And that is not including the time we put in running errands or going to the beach, the movies or other forms of recreation. Driving for us is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

But there's driving, and then there's driving.

The first is the kind you do on the Costa Mesa Freeway or Beach Boulevard. Not much need for rack-and-pinion steering there. You just aim it forward and move your foot from the gas to the brake and back again, not unlike a trolley on a track. And when you get a feel for the road beneath you, that means you know the size and shape of every patch and pothole.

The second kind of driving? That is when your fingers caress the shift knob lovingly as you slip from gear to gear, when you and your machine seem to be sharing each other's most intimate secrets. Whether you're driving a Hyundai Excel or a Jaguar XJS, you feel in control not only of your vehicle but of your destiny. You don't have to prove anything to anybody, so you're relaxing comfortably within the speed limit, enjoying the scenery as it passes.

Can that kind of driving still be done in Orange County? The answer is a definite "yes, but. . . " with the emphasis on the but . The county boasts some of the most beautiful back roads anywhere. We just don't want to boast too loudly, lest they become even more crowded than they already are.

Like their wider, plainer concrete cousins, our scenic routes tend to be overburdened, carrying many more cars than they were meant to hold, traffic engineers say. Nearly all of them are used heavily morning and night by a growing number of commuters--many from outside the county--trying to escape freeway traffic.

These one-of-a-kind roads also have problems caused by drivers who may be unaccustomed to conditions such as blind curves and narrow shoulders. And when those drivers add to the dangers by drinking or speeding, they're even more likely to crash into canyon walls.

The problems are worse now than ever but not as bad as they're going to get. All these routes will become more congested. Some of them will inevitably be tamed by widening and straightening to accommodate the increasing traffic.

The trick, then, is to drive them when--and while--you can.

We tested every road in the county that looked promising on the map. Many were disappointing, with too many stoplights and nothing much interesting to see. But the half-dozen listed here were delightful.

A few were as much fun as our favorite rides at Disneyland. Honest. The kids got a little green around the gills after some marathon Sundays, but now they're begging to go back.

Some ground rules: Aside from avoiding the peak commute hours, stay off these roads whenever you're in a hurry to get somewhere. Don't drink, don't speed, do buckle up and make sure your vehicle is in good shape (that includes your spare tire). Fill the tank before you leave civilization. And, especially if you're bringing the family along, pack plenty of snacks, as well as books and games to keep the passengers occupied during the dull stretches.

And remember, your freeway driving skills aren't enough here. "All these roads have their idiosyncrasies; anybody using them has to be aware of that," says Steve Hogan, manager of transportation programs for the county. "They're very old roadways, and the standards to which they were built are not what we would require today.

"But the roadways are perfectly safe, as long as they are driven as they were intended to be driven, and drivers abide by all the rules that apply to them."

The CHP's Lian says many people who travel Ortega Highway (California 74) blame the road for their driving problems. "But I've been working this area for more than seven years, and I don't see any problem," he says. "For a two-lane mountain road, I'd say it's pretty safe. But people do go off the side."

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