Maria Nunez and two friends were cruising along the Long Beach Freeway a few months ago, returning home from a long night of clubbing, when her car stalled two lanes from the center divider.
In the early morning darkness, Nunez, 32, and her pals scrambled out of the car and onto the center divider, a haven from the cars and trucks that whizzed by at dizzying speeds.
But then Nunez made a fatal mistake. According to police, she tried to dash back to her car to retrieve her purse and was struck by a motorist zipping by at about 65 mph. She died at the scene.
Freeway deaths such as Nunez's are a sad part of life in a region with one of the most extensive and most crowded freeway systems in the nation. But the good news is there seems to be a decline in pedestrian deaths on freeways, a decline that experts attribute to the work of freeway service patrol trucks and the proliferation of cellular telephones.
Last year, 14 people were killed walking in freeway traffic in Los Angeles County, down from 37 deaths in 1993, according to the Los Angeles County coroner's office. Many of those victims were stranded motorists who were killed scrambling to get help or to make a quick repair on a narrow freeway shoulder.
According to the coroner's office, the freeway locations with the most pedestrian deaths include the Hollywood Freeway at the Vermont Avenue onramp near Silver Lake, the intersection of the Harbor and the Santa Monica freeways near the Los Angeles Convention Center, and the Pomona Freeway near Philips Ranch Road in Diamond Bar.
But some of these deaths have nothing to do with a disabled vehicle. In fact, puzzled police investigators often find bodies on the freeway with no corresponding vehicle. Police attribute some of these deaths to people who stroll onto the freeways drunk, mentally unstable or suicidal. They die a horrible death at the hands of an unsuspecting motorist who is left to deal with the trauma of having killed another human being.
In February, Keo Chumroeum, an 18-year-old college student from Long Beach, walked onto the Long Beach Freeway about 8 on a Tuesday night. He was struck and killed by a young man driving in the fast lane. Chumroeum's car was not on the freeway and an autopsy later found no traces of drugs or alcohol in his system. Seven months later, police have yet to determine what prompted the teen to set foot on the freeway.
"It remains one of those great mysteries," said Long Beach Det. Ray Dennison, who initially investigated the case.
Another young man was killed last week trying to cross one of the busiest freeways in the nation--the San Diego Freeway in West Los Angeles--just after midnight. Police were unable to locate any vehicle that he may have left.
After the initial impact, the man was run over by several other motorists who couldn't stop in time or could not see him in the early morning darkness. Some motorists stopped to call police, but the man died in the northbound lanes a few minutes after the accident.
California Highway Patrol Sgt. Doug Morgan said such deaths are not unusual among freeway fatalities. CHP officers often investigate fatal freeway accidents that involve people who, for whatever reason, attempt to dash across a busy four-or five-lane freeway in the dark of night, he said.
In fact, he said, a recent murder victim found on the side of the freeway was initially believed to be another traffic fatality until investigators found gunshot wounds, he said. "There are all kinds of different things happening on the freeway," Morgan said.
For those who end up stranded on freeways due to mechanical problems, the risk of death and injury has been reduced thanks to an army of tow trucks that patrol the freeways in Los Angeles and Orange counties and other Southern California communities.
In Los Angeles County alone, 145 freeway service patrol trucks offer free aid to nearly 1,000 stranded motorists each day. The truck drivers change tires, fix leaking radiator hoses, provide a jump-start or a free gallon of gas--whatever it takes to get the car moving. If nothing else works, the trucks tow the disabled cars to a nearby service station.
Since the service was launched in Los Angeles County in 1991, the trucks have provided aid and comfort to nearly 3 million stalled motorists.
But even the tow truck drivers are not immune to the dangers of the freeway. In 1999, Ricardo Arturo Hernandez, 24, was killed helping a stranded motorist on transition from the Golden State Freeway to the northbound Pasadena Freeway. A driver in a Honda Civic sideswiped Hernandez and the tow truck and never stopped.
The proliferation of cellular phones also has benefited those unlucky drivers who find themselves stuck on a crowded freeway, miles from a service station or a freeway call box.
Nationwide, an estimated 110 million cellular phones are in use, about 6 million of them in Southern California.