WOODLAND HILLS — Matt Horstman will tell you he's not a fan of the rain, but when the California Highway Patrol officer isn't hurrying from accident to accident on a rainy morning, he's cheerful enough to take advantage of any opportunity to splash through a puddle in his patrol car.
Spotting a big one in the distance on a Woodland Hills street, he positions the car alongside the curb and splashes a wall of water off the roadside, watching the drops sprinkle down like a fountain.
"I'm a little too childish sometimes," he concedes.
It was a positive take on the dismal commute Tuesday morning as motorists skidded and slid their way to work on the Ventura Freeway. It was still dark when Horstman, a three-year veteran assigned to the West Valley CHP station, started his day with Valley commuters.
Dressed in yellow rain gear from head to toe, with clear plastic covering his wide-brimmed "Smokey Bear" hat, he watched as cars sailed past him, traveling the speed limit but going too fast for the conditions. Some of the drivers were going faster to make up for time lost waiting behind accidents, but they should have left for work earlier, Horstman said.
"If they gave themselves an extra hour to get to work, that would be all they would need," he said.
But no one likes to get up on days when rain is pelting the roof and the streets are flooded, and Horstman is no exception.
"You wake up and say, 'Oh man, here we go,' " Horstman said. "Once I'm here, it's no big deal. You can't go home. . . . You've got to work."
Most people were happy to see the young CHP officer Tuesday, unlike on some clear days when he's writing tickets. With the many crashes on the freeways, it looked as though Horstman would be too busy for routine ticket-writing.
One of those happy to see Horstman was a 16-year-old Calabasas girl whose Toyota 4-Runner had crumpled into the center divider on the Ventura Freeway.
Horstman weaved across all the lanes to create a traffic break so he could escort the teenager to the right shoulder.
The girl was agitated. Horstman asked if she was hurt. Talking rapidly, she said that she was OK but that she skidded on the wet road and her vehicle slammed into the divider. She told the officer she was on her way to work.
"You're going to be late to work today," he said.
Another CHP officer arrived to take the report, because the accident was on his beat. Horstman was off again.
Most of the crashes along westbound Ventura Freeway were solo spin-outs--cars that skidded and hit the center divider or spun onto the right shoulder, Horstman said.
Not long after saying that, Horstman spotted a mud-caked Mitsubishi facing the wrong way on the right shoulder of the westbound freeway. The car had skidded 75 feet through mud and tall grass.
"Are you OK?" Horstman asked the driver.
"I'm OK. I made a lane change and I went out of control," said Willie Hill, surveying his car. "It's horrible. I think the car flipped over, I'm not sure."
On days like Tuesday, Horstman said, he can't spend a lot of time at crashes where there are no injuries.
Though there were 17 cars on patrol from the West Valley CHP office--at least two more than usual--none of the officers were bored. There were overturned cars to deal with, plus spun-out vehicles, disabled motorists and the CHP's closure of Malibu Canyon Road at both ends because of a mudslide.
When the officer wasn't tending to accident victims, he made his own work: assisting stranded motorists, removing chunks of asphalt dislodged by flooding in the road.
But it was never too long before a dispatcher called out another crash.
Horstman said he's heard all the excuses.
"They like to blame the roadway a lot--or other people," he said.