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LIFE ON WHEELS

Near-Death on Highway? Well, That's Life

August 18, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

I almost got killed again the other day--nothing unusual, for me or any other typical county driver. By my admittedly unofficial and unscientific reckoning, it seems to happen to me at least once a month.

This occasion was a little more dramatic than most. I was heading south on the Costa Mesa Freeway on Saturday morning, still early enough that traffic was blissfully thin and flowing as swiftly as a trout stream.

As I approached the Santa Ana Freeway interchange, there was a Suzuki Samurai merging in from the right.

Now I've read the Consumer Reports article about the Samurai's alleged tendency to flip over, but this is not a bid to join that dispute. I can only say that while the Samurai did screech across all three lanes plus the car-pool lane, then back to the center lane before spinning around 2 1/2 times and halting mere inches from my front bumper, facing due north in the center southbound lane, it did not turn over. In fact, from what I could see, that little buggy kept all four wheels on the ground at all times.

Nobody was hurt; not even a taillight was broken. It was as if the whole episode were a carefully choreographed movie scene, spliced in to speed things along in a sluggish plot.

We all sat there for an immeasurable moment, dead still: the Samurai, me in my mini-van, the Oldsmobile he had almost hit at least three times, and four or five other cars that had either dodged or witnessed the Samurai's mad lurch across the lanes.

Then we all started breathing again. The Suzuki and the Olds pulled over onto the shoulder, apparently to argue over what had just happened. The rest of us cranked it back into gear and soon were zipping along at 55-plus as if nothing had happened.

As I think about it, what amazes me is not the incident itself, but that, until now, I haven't mentioned it to anyone.

And you know why I didn't, and why you don't when it happens to you: Near-collisions like that have become a normal part of our driving lives here.

Oh, sure, there was the morning that three cars burst into flames in front of me on the Riverside Freeway--not all at once, but about one every 5 miles. I showed up a half-hour late to an appointment, so I had to explain.

"Yes, it's pretty bad out there this time of day," said the woman whose business meeting I had held up, offering me a sympathetic nod but no other reaction, not even disbelief.

Then there were three young blondes in a Fiat convertible who pulled off their shirts at the Riverside-Costa Mesa Freeway interchange, causing an 18-wheeler to change course at the last minute, from westbound to southbound and (almost) right over me. That one got a murmur of acknowledgement from the guys at the office, but not for reasons that had anything to do with driving.

I could go on, and so could you, I know. But we don't.

Five years ago, when I was a wide-eyed newcomer to the county, I would arrive at the office almost every day with wild--but true--stories about the adventures I'd had on the way. It took me forever to realize that what my co-workers found amusing was not the incidents themselves but the novelty they held for me. After a few months, I saved those stories for the folks back in the Midwest.

Now, a jaded veteran, I don't even bother with that. The folks back home always suspected I was making it up, anyway.

"Denial is a very powerful mechanism," one friend notes--and for county drivers, perhaps a necessary one. Otherwise we'd all be pathologically sane, running around like Yossarian in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," going on and on about how dangerous it is out there.

Acknowledging the risk we take every day reminds us to use our seat belts, to stay off the road if we've been drinking, to leave a little extra space between us and the car ahead. But that's about it--aside from bicycles, buses and trains, we have few alternatives.

Still, I have to admit that the close call has had a residual effect. A day or so later, I was headed south on the same freeway when I realized there were two Suzuki Samurais just ahead of me, one on the left, one on the right. I caught my breath as I passed between them, but it was a chance I had to take. After all, I was in a hurry to get to the beach.

To Pass the Time

Reading the newspaper, painting nails, playing chess, playing a musical instrument--county drivers do some strange things when they're stuck in traffic--or even when they're moving at 55 or faster. What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen a fellow driver do on the freeway? And fess up: What's the oddest thing you've ever done?

Attention, non-drivers!

Is it possible to live without a car here? If you're totally or mostly dependent on alternative means of transportation, such as bicycles or buses, tell us how you get along, and around, without a car.

Send your comments to Life on Wheels, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include your telephone number so a reporter may contact you. To protect your privacy, Life on Wheels does not publish correspondents' last names when the subject is sensitive.

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