"It was touch-and-go there for a second, but then I just signaled, saw a gap, and moved slowly into the lane of traffic," said driver Paul Salvatore, 38, a draftsman at an Irvine architectural firm.
Salvatore said he hadn't even intended to take the freeway but made a split-second decision in hopes of getting home to his wife and two daughters before two medium pizzas soaked through their boxes and into the upholstery on the passenger seat.
The fact that he didn't quite make it home in time was memorialized by a vague stain, but Salvatore didn't seem bothered. "I don't know if I've ever merged so successfully," he said. "One second I was roaring down the onramp into a impenetrable river of cars, and the next I was in the right lane."
Salvatore doesn't remember much about the specifics of this experience. "The tick-tick-tick of my left-hand blinker comes back to me very vividly," he said, squeezing his eyes tightly shut as he struggled to recall the moment. "And I know I'm supposed to look over my shoulder, you know, for the blind spot, so I'm pretty sure I did that."
Caltrans officials say hundreds of thousands of Californians merge successfully every day.
"We see this type of thing, I don't know, all the time," said Alan Greenspan, director of highway safety for the state agency. "But it's the accidents, the people who fail to merge successfully, who get all the headlines."
An OC Weekly survey of the Katella onramp at the 57 freeway suggested Greenspan is right. Over the course of two hours, 434 cars rising up the asphalt roadway managed to merge without major incident.
Nonetheless, many people cringe at the mere mention of merging and seek better regulation.
"Merging is simply too dangerous to be left in the hands of ordinary drivers," said Hans Groening, director of the Santa Ana-based nonprofit group Purge the Merge. "When a ship comes into a harbor, it is required by law to bring on a harbor pilot. We're just saying."
Purge the Merge would require California drivers to pick up state-licensed merging experts for the short trip between surface streets and highways.
Groening emphasized that his group was "happy that Mr. Salvatore merged without dismemberment, but we'd say he's lucky to be alive." Groening then repeated the word "member" and giggled to himself.
Viewing a videotape supplied by the Weekly, experts at UC Irvine's School of Transportation said Salvatore did a "good, but not great" job of merging.
"He could have picked up a little more speed, and he signaled a few seconds later than we'd ordinarily like to see in these situations," said Spencer Poster-Wiener, whose 1995 book Getting Together: A History of the Marriage of Auto Speed, Time and Distance on American Onramps was considered a Bible on the subject of merging until fundamentalist Christian groups objected. "Then again, you've got to remember he was transporting pizzas."