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Tales From The Freeway

4-Lane Love : Drivers Avoid Commitment in 15-Second Highway Romances

November 08, 1990|BRIAN ALEXANDER

It is a longstanding cliche that Californians have a love affair with cars, but it is now true that we have love affairs in cars.

Engaging in a cute meet at the junction of Interstates 5 and 805 is a natural extension of the way we live our lives. The lyric from an old Manfred Mann tune "There she was just a-walkin' down the street," could be rewritten as "There she was just a drivin' down the freeway." (Okay, so the meter's off, but you get the point.)

This is the age of AIDs, mass consumption and overextended credit. We are forced to work long hours far from home. Thus, the scenario formerly played out in sleazy-but-fun singles bars now takes place on interstate highways.

There you are nonchalantly driving your late model machine. The car gleams and screams out your financial and professional success.

You look across a crowded four lanes of commuting traffic and, like Paul on the road to Damascus, you are struck by a vision. She's in a white Volkswagen Rabbit or a red BMW. She wears sunglasses, the kind that make her look just a little flashy. She looks good. She looks fine. And you nearly lose your mind.

She's not looking at you, but you begin to sidle over. First one lane, then two. You match her speed. She looks over. Your eyes lock at 65 m.p.h. She smiles. You wink. She smiles wider. You wave.

Ahhh. Time for a cigarette.

Because you are both sealed in climate controlled cars with great stereo systems hurtling down a concrete strip, there's no chance for deadly diseases to pass between you.

The whole affair has lasted 15 seconds, so there's no commitment. There's no impossible decision about which movie to see--the artsy one with subtitles that shows off your bohemian side or the male-bonding kickboxer flick that proves you've got testosterone. You don't even have to agonize over whether picking up the dinner check is sexist. No doubts about whose career takes precedence, whose mother should come for Thanksgiving or who should clean up the food processor after making pesto. This, finally, is the perfect romance.

But take heed. It does have its own dangers. You could, literally, crash and burn.

"A man flirted with me and got in an accident when he rear ended the car in front of him," reported Paula Jefferson, who happens to be an officer with the California Highway Patrol.

Although the CHP does not keep records listing "flirting" as an accident cause, many officers have witnessed episodes.

"I'm positive it happens," Jefferson said. "It's usually around the commute times, especially in the evening."

"There's no reliable data," said Chuck Hurley, vice president of the Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. "I'm sure it happens, but that data would only come from self-reporting and not only would it be embarrassing, but there are financial incentives (due to higher insurance rates) not to own up to that."

Jefferson cites other things we do in cars that cause accidents, like putting on makeup and even reading the morning paper while on the way to work.

With car phones, faxes, books on tape and even portable water heaters, it is now possible to run through most of life's events while rolling a mile a minute.

Suppose a freeway romance blossoms, and you decide to travel down life's highway together with a little spare tire of your own. We've all heard stories of babies being born in cars. Now, there's a legal provision to allow for nursing them in cars.

"The child restraint laws have an exemption for nursing mothers," explained Hurley. "In theory it was put in because mothers wanted to nurse during a car trip, and the child couldn't do it in a car seat. We take the position that there should be no exemptions. A person should pull off the road."

Just as romance can blossom on the freeway, so can it wilt. Suppose your car is British and hers is French. You find right away you are incompatible.

It's almost certain that more than one divorce has been decided on the freeway.

Once, while connecting with the 405 at El Toro, commuters witnessed twin Mercedeses playing a high-speed game of checkers as they switched lanes and wove in and out of traffic. The man in the red Mercedes seemed to be pleading for the woman in the white Mercedes to come back to him. She shook her fist. He screamed. She gestured in several languages.

Meanwhile, other drivers gazed skyward, looking for a film studio helicopter they figured must be shooting the scene for Knotts Landing.

It's difficult to drive when you have stars--or tears--in your eyes. Love, like all those other drivers on the freeway, can take unexpected twists and turns.

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