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EARTHQUAKE / THE LONG ROAD BACK : Freeway-Phobes Say Quake Shows They’re Just Street Smart

Amy Malina, an expatriate New Yorker, has routinely risked whiplash while motoring on Manhattan’s pothole-plagued expressways. She has also frequently defied death by boarding subways well past midnight, bound for the most crime-infested neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Yet when it comes to driving on Los Angeles freeways, forget about it.

“I have always had an intense fear of entering the freeway,” said the Westside resident. “But now I’m sort of in the mainstream.

“I’m no longer driving-impaired.”

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Some friends jokingly refer to Malina, 40, as a surface girl. Others call her a freeway-phobe.

Whatever the appellation, the musician/composer is among the tens of thousands of Southland residents who were afflicted with a strong fear of freeway driving long before portions of the Santa Monica, Antelope Valley and Simi Valley freeways came crashing to the ground.

If not vindication, the temblor has resulted in validation for many Angelenos with freeway phobias.

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“I’ve always been afraid of the freeways,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D’Agostino. “And this certainly doesn’t endear them to me.”

D’Agostino, who is frightened by excessive driving speeds, seeks to avoid freeways even as a passenger.

“I scrunch down in the back seat so I don’t have to look,” said the veteran prosecutor, who commutes on surface streets between the Westside and Van Nuys. “Sitting next to a serial murderer in court doesn’t faze me one iota. But the thought of being in a car on a freeway does.”

Experts estimate that as many as 10% of all Southland drivers refused to venture onto the freeways before the Northridge temblor. About 25% of those who did, they add, did so with trepidation.

“A lot have a fear of panic or anxiety and are more afraid of that while they’re driving,” said Gerald Tarlow, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of the Center for Anxiety Management.

In a city defined in large part by its car culture, many freeway-phobes have traditionally remained silent about their aversion.

But with freeway traffic having slowed to a crawl--not to mention being rerouted along such surface streets as Robertson Boulevard, Little Tujunga Canyon Road and Sierra Highway--some freeway-phobes have become bolder--verbally, at least.

“People who drove the freeways before the earthquake used to look at people like me as if they felt sorry,” said USC journalism professor Clancy Sigal. “Now I look at them and I feel terribly sorry for them because I know what they must be going through.

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“But there’s a NIMBY (not in my back yard) thing,” he added. “I don’t want them to mess up my surface streets. Stay away.”

It’s a far cry from the glory years of the freeways, when the thick asphalt ribbons served as symbols of mobility and progress, or in Joan Didion’s novels, freedom and abandon.

It is also a far cry from the opinions of traffic experts, who continue to maintain that freeways are the safest place to drive this side of Disneyland.

At the California Driving School, where business has plummeted during the last two weeks, instructors dispense with the psychological rigmarole and head straight for the freeway, sometimes without informing their clients.

“If there’s any qualms,” said its president, George R. Hensel, “it would not be for people driving on the freeway.

“It would be for people on the surface streets under the freeways.”

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If any winners have emerged this month--besides the TV viewers who will no longer have to suffer through live coverage of high-speed freeway chases--it is the authors of “L.A. Shortcuts” and “Freeway Alternatives,” two books on how to avoid interstates.

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“I must confess my book is starting to sell,” said David (Dr. Roadmap) Rizzo, author of the latter tome. “Sales had slowed to a trickle of about one a day. . . . But my publisher told me that last week alone two book chains ordered 250 more each.”

For surface-streeter Malina, the quake means no longer having to be the butt of jokes.

“My husband once suggested that I go to driving school for some postgraduate work to overcome my problem,” she said. “But the earthquake makes me feel strongly that I don’t mind having my phobia.”

“I always knew there was something fishy about those freeways. Now I can put my finger on it exactly.”

Malina has driven only once on a Los Angeles freeway. It happened by mistake nearly a decade ago after she agreed to follow a friend from Los Feliz to Chinatown. When the friend turned left onto the Hollywood Freeway, Malina turned sick to her stomach.

“I figured what the hell, this is crazy, let’s try it,” she said. “But no sooner was I on the freeway than my car, seemingly on its own, as if it thought better of it, exited immediately on the next ramp.”

Malina and her cousin, another freeway-phobe, proceeded to drive west down Sunset Boulevard back to the Westside, recovering from their nausea in time to stop in Beverly Hills for dinner.

“I guess you can lead a horse to water,” she says. “But you can’t make it drink.”


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