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Left-Turning 10 Seconds Into the Red

December 14, 1996

Anyone who's spent any time in Southern California freeway traffic knows that the movie "Speed"--in which a bomb is set to destroy a Santa Monica bus if the speedometer drops below 50 mph--was an exercise in wishful thinking. In real freeway life, the movie would have been over before the opening credits. It's no wonder that all of us, including the media, are fixated on our dysfunctional freeways, but there's another traffic horror story that we're missing, of desperate urban motorists trying to make left turns at congested surface street intersections in the city of Los Angeles.

While these intersections almost always have left-turn lanes, they hardly ever have left-turn signals, despite the fact that they are almost always busy, with two lanes of oncoming traffic. I'd hate to think somebody planned it this way; it's definitely not something you find in our suburbs.

Most drivers end up turning left on red. This includes motorists who were only problematically near the intersection when the light changed. They've already been waiting at least one full signal cycle. At La Cienega and Santa Monica, they may have been waiting for half a dozen lights. In their minds, they were out there in the thick of things. They could have been out there if the dope in front of them had advanced to the center of the intersection, where the DMV manual says to go, instead of loitering behind the crosswalk. They've earned the right to turn left. So they go on red, forcing cross-traffic to stop on green. (In this respect, at least, L.A. is color-blind.) Of course, the cross-traffic doesn't always stop. There are always deviants, probably from Iowa, to whom green means "go."

Maybe someday the freeway-fascinated media will give L.A.'s desperate left-turn crisis the attention it deserves. People in places like San Dimas and Fountain Valley might take pity and send us some left-turn signals. They must have some to spare.

In the meantime, in the grip of freeway gridlock, they can at least take some comfort in knowing they don't have to turn left.

STEVE SHENDER

Los Angeles

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