Lost Highway

Photo by Keith MayMy wife is typing this for me. She's writing it, too. She always does, and I cash the checks. It's a great arrangement, and it seems to work all right for you guys, so here we go:

She's typing because there's a painful tingling in my arms. My neck also hurts like a son of a bitch. This is all the result of an auto collision that has left me feeling fortunate to be alive, pain or no.

Driving home from Northridge on a traffic-packed Friday, I skirted the LA interchanges to take the equally sluggish 210 freeway to the 57. Effecting a lane change to the right—signal flashing, plenty of room, etc.—I had pretty much merged into the lane when—whammo!—the left front end of a Honda merged with the right rear of my beleaguered Saturn. It is never a welcome surprise, that crunching bang as your head whips back. "This doesn't bode well," I thought, or something similar but with four letters.

It didn't stop there. The other guy's car had enough forward momentum that his two left wheels departed the ground and rode down the length of my car, crushing panels, rear suspension and even part of my right front windshield before he returned to earth in front of me. From my vantage, this seemed to pass in slow motion, with his car's progress across my right flank having that submarine-scraping-over-the-Atlantic-Shelf sound we know so well from the movies. I can imagine things were at least as disconcerting for the folks in the other car, as they were motoring at a rakish angle to the planet at large. Though not drivable, we both were able to get our cars to the shoulder, with the help of an AAA emergency service person whose van happened to be there.

It certainly could have been worse. But just in case I didn't yet understand that, as I shakily stepped out of my car, I stepped right into a fat wad of chewing gum. And that, too, could have been worse, if they let people walk their dogs on freeway sidings.

I could tell already that my neck had taken a good jolt, and a few hours, a body shop and a rental car later, the whiplash pain and tingling set in. So Saturday morning, I spent four hours with the nice doctors and technicians at Hoag's Emergency Care Unit where they confirmed the whiplash, took X-rays and did an MRI on my neck.

Hoag isn't exactly in the inner city, but it was still busy enough, with a stream of suburban misadventurers—who fell off ladders, were beaned playing softball, etc.—passing through. Even while attending more immediate cases, Dr. John Riel did a thorough, caring job on me. I was quite satisfied with my Hoag experience and shall continue to be until the bill arrives.

I also liked the MRI tech, Kevin Roach, who told me he plays bass in the old OC punk band Secret Hate. "We're not a skinhead band!" he was quick to assert. "Hate was much more generic back then."

An MRI is a scary thing and, in the hopes of hearing one last compliment on earth before I headed in, I mentioned that I wrote a column in the OC Weekly. "Wow, you do?!" he enthused. "I love that Commie Girl! What does she look like?"

If you've never had an MRI, it's pretty much like being buried in a coffin for 30 minutes with really loud electronica pumped in. I know—been-there, done-that, you're thinking, but with an MRI, you also get to see really gross cross-sections of your innards afterwards. My prognosis was that, barring the pain or tingling getting worse, I'll just hurt and heal for a while.

My car may be totaled; I haven't heard yet. And I understand from my insurance company that the other party's version of the event differs considerably from mine, something to the effect of my lurching into the lane at high speed at a 45-degree angle.

The other driver and his passengers seemed like nice enough folks, and unless they're also claiming I was screwing an ostrich while driving, I doubt they're intentionally lying. But people aren't video recorders, and their perspective does affect their perception of events. In an accident situation, there may only be a second or two of information to process, and meanwhile the adrenalin is surging and you're trying to react. So it's no wonder that even among well-intentioned persons, there are so many roadway Rashomons.

One of us will doubtless be found at fault, though the root fault may be that our marvelous system of cars and highways is fatally flawed, and I do mean fatal. In the U.S. last year, there were 41,730 highway deaths and approximately 3 million injuries, and those are pretty much the usual numbers. That's not even considering the thousands of premature deaths from air pollution or heightened stress. So our highways working at their best kill nearly 15 times the number of persons that evildoers evil-doing their worst did on Sept. 11. And that grinds on every year. They are not pleasant deaths, but rending, burning, screaming metal deaths as gruesome as any battlefield.

Back in the protest years, I saw Ray Bradbury speak at Costa Mesa's Estancia High School, and he said that the most meaningful statement we young'uns could make would be to burn our driver's licenses, that driving was anti-civilization and anti-human.

Snot that I was, I asked him how he'd gotten there that day. He said a friend drove him. That seemed like surrogated hypocrisy to me then, but what's a person to do when he lives in Southern California? They tore up the original Red Line in the 1950s, casting it asunder with a biblical finality, selling the rail cars off to South America or dumping them in the ocean. Few people today (and I'm not one of them) remember what it was like to ride a convenient, cheap and fun form of mass transit from LA all the way to the Balboa Pavilion.

It wasn't just the scheming of the gasoline, automobile and tire companies that did the Red Line in. Back then, automobiles meant freedom and progress, and everyone wanted one of their own. But the guy today who loses a sixth of his day to commuting might think otherwise. I know many people with three- to four-hour daily commutes. One study maintains that Americans cumulatively lose eight billion hours per year stuck in traffic. Those hours could have been spent finding a cure for whiplash, or at least reading Infinite Jest all the way through.

And every year, traffic gets worse. Researchers have found that the time saved by "highway improvements" such as those perpetually snarling OC traffic never equals the time lost to drivers by the delays the construction causes. The money we voted in over the years for mass transit usually winds up spent on highways, and the toll roads largely just serve to open new areas to development, meaning still more traffic.

Ride a bike, and you're in constant peril of a car clipping you. Ride our mass transit—meaning busses—and you still get the auto's clotted traffic. And the transit system is stuck in an endless cycle: underfunded because people don't use it, and underused because it is underfunded and feeble.

Most of the world's great cities also have great mass transit, a large part of what makes those burgs great. Better late than never, our Orange County Transportation Authority is getting to the heavy petting stage with the CenterLine, a light-rail line intended to link Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and Irvine. The 18-mile route has been whittled down from an originally proposed to be 28 miles. At that rate, we'll be lucky if the tracks are any longer than the train is when it is finished in 2011, which probably means 2019 in 'crat-speak.

In the meantime, we are so car-conditioned that even before I'd made it home from my wreck, I was admiring a new T-bird I saw on the road. It didn't look as good as in the commercials though, as those never show sleek cars stuck in traffic, the driver fuming behind the wheel. The ads would probably be even less appealing if they ever once showed a bit more reality, of a driver hobbling out of his crumpled vehicle and stepping in a glop of gum and a world of hurt.


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