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Paging All Cars! Traffic Jams Ahead

September 03, 1993|RALPH VARTABEDIAN

Everybody who drives in Los Angeles knows where to tune in on the radio for the latest information on traffic jams and Sig Alerts. But so many jams are occurring on the vast Southern California road network, radio information is often incomplete.

Private services are springing up to provide more complete information. Among the first on the market is Roadirector, which provides subscribers a full road report every four minutes over a pager.

The charge is $9.95 per month, not including the pager, which costs about $200. The service provides information obtained from Caltrans and its own sources on every freeway that is moving at less than 20 miles per hour.

Roadirector also provides help by phone to lost motorists at a charge of $1.75 per call. The company can be reached at (310) 641-8868.

"We are the first in the nation to provide traffic information on a pager," said Hilary Sit, the company's founder. Meanwhile, Caltrans is experimenting with ways of delivering its information directly to motorists. Eventually, satellite-based systems with computerized maps will be built into dashboards to show drivers where they are. Stay tuned.

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Question: I own a 1987 Volkswagen Camper Vanagon. In the past three years, the flexible gas line has become disconnected inside the engine compartment twice. Although the engine was sprayed with fuel, there was no fire. In the junkyards south of the city, I have seen three burned-out VWs. I wrote a letter to VW-USA, but have not heard back. Is there a known problem?

--D.H.

Answer: Volkswagen has not issued any recalls to address safety problems in the fuel system in its Vanagon models, though it has issued recalls for regulators used in the fuel system.

The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group in Washington, says it has received other complaints about Vanagon fires but has declined to investigate the cases because there are so few Vanagons in use that it is difficult to know whether there is a widespread problem.

However, the center has long asserted that fuel-injected vehicles have a higher risk of gas leakage and fires than carbureted engines.

Fuel-injection systems typically operate at much higher pressures than cars with carburetors. In addition, newer engines operate at higher temperatures, so engine compartments are quite a bit hotter than in the past.

Clarence Ditlow, director of the center, says his data show the incidence of automobile fires is growing, though no formal studies by the federal government or independent groups have shown why.

"I don't think the manufacturers should use plastic in those fuel lines, because of the high temperatures and pressures," Ditlow says.

Another factor in fire risk is the higher volatility of today's fuel. When refiners were required to take lead out of gasoline, they increased the amount of butane to maintain the octane level. That has increased the volatility of the fuel, Ditlow says.

A Volkswagen representative responded that it is difficult to say that Vanagon models are subject to fires based on your anecdotal evidence.

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