On the night of June 23, 1997, champion boxer Oscar De La Hoya drove his brother’s Mercedes on the 605 Freeway near Whittier. He was in the fast lane when the car stalled. He maneuvered to the left shoulder but couldn’t find his cell phone. The California Highway Patrol recommends you stay in your vehicle wearing your seat belt and call for help if your car stalls on the freeway. De La Hoya didn’t feel safe. He opened the car door, waited for a gap in traffic and sprinted across five lanes to the other side of the freeway. Moments later a massive truck smashed into the Mercedes, totaling the car.
All Angelenos have stories of seeing horrific accidents, getting stuck in nightmare traffic jams or witnessing a police car chase on a freeway. To live in Los Angeles one must make peace with the freeway. You learn to accept the gridlock, reckless drivers, ramshackle cars and ever-prowling highway patrol. In a city composed of haves and have-nots, freeways are the last bastion of egalitarianism. Whether you drive a Rolls Royce or a broken-down Chevy, all drivers have equal freeway access.
Charles Bukowski wrote, “When I drive the freeways, I see the soul of humanity of my city and it’s ugly, ugly, ugly.” The unwritten rule of freeway driving is drive aggressively. Defensive driving is not enough. To signal before a lane change guarantees the car behind you will not let you in. The trick is to quickly change lanes and then hit the turn signal as if to say, “That’s right, I just cut you off.”
Observing the speed limit is an unforgivable sin. Posted speed limits are merely suggestions and most commuters drive ten to fifteen miles over the limit when traffic is flowing. Tailgating is a religion on LA freeways. It’s not uncommon to see drivers riding each other’s bumpers at 75 mph even while knowing a sudden stop would be fatal. Driving LA freeways is like swimming in the ocean. Everybody does it despite the riptides and sharks and huge waves that occasionally claim lives.
Locals refer to the freeways by their route numbers as in “take the 405 to the 101.” Each freeway has a distinct character and flavor. The 405 is the busiest freeway in the world, known for its unrelenting traffic jams. This was the route OJ took in his famous White Bronco chase. Driving the 101 is like taking a trek through old Los Angeles…