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From The Metropolitian Front

'Dr. Roadmap' Turns a Mania for Motoring Into a Prescription for Happier Driving

June 28, 1996

Driving is David Rizzo's passion, so it's just as well he made it his life' work.

Born 45 years ago under the Santa Monica Freeway, he has lived in South-Central Los Angeles, Santa Fe Springs, Whittier, Santa Ana, the Crenshaw district and Long Beach, memorizing every off-ramp, bottleneck, dead end and landmark along the way.

He has worked for United Parcel Service, driven trucks and forklifts and roamed the Inland Empire as a real estate broker. Finally he made his parents happy by becoming a doctor. But Rizzo's favorite part of podiatry was house calls--40,000 miles a year in his 1977 Cadillac--from Barstow to Palm Springs and all points between.

Each trip was an opportunity to find a clever way to get from Point A to Point B. Eventually, he was choosing patients because they lived in hard-to-find places. At cocktail parties, he was more often asked for directions than medical advice. And on dates, he did not suggest trendy new restaurants but untried, convoluted routes to old ones.

Eventually, the lightbulb went on over Rizzo's head.

He dubbed himself Doctor Roadmap and wrote a book called "Freeway Alternates." The 1990 guide sold only 8,000 copies, many of them after the Northridge earthquake, when Angelenos who had hardly been off the region's 520 miles of freeways suddenly needed to navigate 20,000 miles of surface streets. Radio interviews to promote "Freeway Alternates" made Rizzo a star, the Dear Abby of commuting in a city where a mattress in the fast lane warrants a news bulletin and movies are made about people who lose their minds in traffic jams.

For a while, Rizzo guided frustrated commuters through SigAlerts for KABC radio, where he still can be heard on occasional shifts. But his primary gig these days is as a car phone counselor to customers of L.A. Cellular.

For the price of the air time, drivers can call *FIND if they are lost or *JAM if they're stuck in traffic. That connects them to Rizzo or his colleagues who staff the phones at Metro Traffic, a wholesaler of traffic reports. AirTouch, L.A. Cellular's competitor, offers prerecorded reports, updated every 15 minutes, but no personal hand-holding.

Rizzo works from a windowless cubicle equipped with computer monitors that flash accident reports from the Highway Patrol and freeway speeds from Caltrans sensors embedded in the roadways. On the wall is a list of construction sites, a map of freeway exits and a bookshelf full of telephone books. On Rizzo's desk is the most recent Thomas Guide--not his favorite edition--and his own personal copy, circa 1988. In that dogeared volume, he knows the page numbers by heart and has made inscrutable jottings in the margins.

The key to Rizzo's reports is his knowledge that goes off the map. Callers get directions, for instance, to turn right at Sees' Candy on La Cienega or left at the Motel 6 on Hunts Lane in San Bernardino.

While Rizzo's passion is ingenious detours, he spends much of his time as a cross between a telephone operator and a personal shopper.

On the *FIND line, an occasional caller is actually lost on the way to, say, North Irana Street in Redondo Beach. But far more often, they ask for the telephone number of the Q Star Video store in Montebello or the Lobster Connection in Venice.

To keep his interest up, Rizzo often volunteers directions to the above locations. But his skills as Dr. Roadmap are not tested until the heat of rush hour. At 4:55 one recent afternoon, there were three SigAlerts in progress: a fuel spill shutting three lanes on the southbound Costa Mesa Freeway near Lincoln Avenue, a gravel truck that had spilled its load on the Artesia Freeway near the Long Beach Freeway and an injury accident that closed the Laguna Beach Freeway to Laguna Beach in both directions.

Some people called, asking which freeways to avoid. Others were already stuck behind a stream of brake lights and wanted an explanation. "'You'd have to ask a psychiatrist why this is," Rizzo says, "but as soon as they know why they calm down."

More adventuresome motorists wanted an alternate route, no matter how many zigs and zags.

Take that pesky gravel truck on the Artesia. It was possible to get around the snag by getting off at Wilmington Avenue and turning left. Go half a mile to Greenleaf Boulevard and turn right. It dead-ends at Alameda Street and jogs to the left, where you pick it up again. Another dead end at Atlantic Drive, which blends into Atlantic Avenue. Follow that for 100 yards and go right on Alondra Boulevard. Then take Cherry Avenue for a mile, make another right and you're back on the freeway, free as a bird.

Rizzo's eyes gleam. "The part I love is solving a puzzle in real time," he says. "I've been driving my brains out my whole life, so this comes naturally. It drives my parents to distraction, because traffic doesn't pay near as good as medicine. But the perfect job has finally found the perfect person."

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