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EARTHQUAKE: THE LONG ROAD BACK : How to Stop Singing--or Yelling--the Bottleneck Blues

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The earth seems to be settling down--gradually. Power and water are being restored and the rubble is being cleared. But if you’re a commuter from north Los Angeles County, the weekday travel routine you’ve learned to love--or at least live with--is still a shambles.

The Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways are a mess, and repairs are proceeding slowly. And every day, tens of thousands of commuters head south from the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys into one giant bottleneck.

So if you must drive, here are some travel and safety tips that might make the commute a tad more bearable.

Q.: Are the winding mountains roads through the Angeles National Forest a good alternative to the clogged freeways?

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A.: Yes. Some commuters tell us they’ve been making better time on the mountain roads, such as Angeles Forest Highway, Angeles Crest Highway, Sand Canyon, Big Tujunga Canyon Road and Little Tujunga Road. These take you around the logjam where the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways meet, and dump you out near the Foothill Freeway north of Los Angeles. That may be good or bad--depending on where you’re going.

But a few words of caution are in order.

These detours may become less attractive as more freeway lanes are reopened and the two-lane mountain roads become more congested. And because of sudden curves and unpredictable weather, these routes require extra attention when you’re behind the wheel.

Q. So how can I drive these steep, narrow roads and live to tell about it?

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A. First, you need to know if they’re open--because sometimes they’re not, which you don’t want to learn by halting at a barrier deep in the mountains. Radio traffic reports usually tell you if any of these roads has been closed because of ice, snow or rockslides. Also, recorded information about Angeles Crest Highway conditions can be obtained by calling (800) 427-ROAD.

If you take to the hills, make sure that your windshield wipers work and that your tires are properly inflated and have good treads, and your gas tank is not low. Also, at this time of year, “you should have warm clothing,” says California Highway Patrol Officer Rich Obregon. “If your car breaks down, you should have a blanket. It’s a very remote area.”

Under normal conditions, the speed limit is 55 m.p.h. But watch for reduced speed zones on some curves and slopes. Be prepared for fog and ice patches, and be alert for the gravel that has rolled down onto many curves.

Remember that there are no street lights along these roads after dark, and only a double yellow line separates you from oncoming traffic. And that drop-off on the other side sometimes goes for hundreds of feet.

When a curve appears or a rock falls onto the road, a driver may have to slow down or stop suddenly. So leave at least three car-lengths between yourself and the vehicle ahead, suggests Obregon. And if impatient drivers bear down behind you, pull over and let them pass.

Q. Are there any other routes into Los Angeles?

A. There are a couple of less hazardous options, but they involve a greater distance. From Palmdale, you can head east on California 138, also called Pearblossom Highway, into San Bernardino County, then drive south on Interstate 15. From there you can connect to freeways going toward downtown Los Angeles or Long Beach.

Santa Clarita residents can take a long-distance detour by heading west on California 126 near Magic Mountain. At Fillmore, go south on California 23 to connect to the Simi Valley and Ventura freeways.

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Q. If I must use the Antelope or Golden State freeways, will it help to leave early?

A. Maybe. But be aware that congestion at the damaged junction of these freeways started to appear last week as early as 4 a.m. One advantage of leaving very early, however, is that you will find smooth sailing on most other freeways once you get past the Santa Clarita bottleneck.

George Webb, who drives a commuter van from Lancaster to Long Beach, told us he was able to make the morning trip in about two hours by leaving at 3 a.m. His mid-afternoon return trip ran into a lot more traffic, however.

Q. How do I get into a car-pool or set up a van-pool, so I can share this miserable commute with a few co-workers?

A. One thing about pooling, misery loves company--and it will get you into the car-pool lanes that Caltrans is setting up at the Santa Clarita bottleneck. These lanes should help you get to work faster than solo commuters.

If you want to car-pool, call (800) 286-RIDE between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends. Tell the people at Commuter Transportation Services, a nonprofit corporation formerly called Commuter Computer, where you live and work and what hours you’re on the job.

Without charge, they’ll send you the names and phone numbers of potential car-pool partners. You can also request tips on setting up a car-pool, such as how to share expenses and how to avoid incompatible riders, such as smokers and nonsmokers.

If you find 10 to 15 potential car-pool partners, you might consider a van-pool. Typically, the driver leases the vehicle and divides the cost among the riders. A daily 140-mile round trip aboard a 12-seat van might cost each passenger about $150 a month.

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The cost can vary widely, however. Also, some companies will help pay the expense for employees who ride-share.

Commuter Transportation Services runs a Van-Pool hot line, (213) 365-6993. Leave a message, and they’ll get back to you with advice on setting up a van-pool. They can also direct you to companies that lease such vehicles.

You don’t need a special license if you transport no more than 15 people. The van-pool driver often rides for free, as compensation for his or her duties. But a van-pool cannot be set up to make a profit.

Q. Can I get to work faster aboard a motorcycle?

A. Maybe, maybe not, depending on whether you’re a seasoned motorcyclist or a beginner.

A few words of warning. The quake has triggered a motorcycle buying boom in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys. Apparently, some frustrated drivers think they can just shell out for a two-wheeler and start speeding past the rows of creeping cars.

But it’s nowhere near that simple. First, you need a special license to ride a motorcycle, and you must pass a written and riding test to get one. If you’re under 21, you must also complete a CHP-approved safety course.

Second, lane-splitting, riding down that narrow open space between stalled or very slow-moving cars, is not a tactic for beginners, motorcycle safety experts say.

It requires much more intense concentration generally to ride a motorcycle competently and safely than it does to drive a car (veteran motorcyclists will tell you that’s why they enjoy it). But it takes a long period of dedication, perhaps years, to become proficient enough to split lanes safely.

Even veteran riders with a dozen years or more experience will tell you that they work hard to perfect an entire bag of tricks and skills needed to remain unhurt. They search for signs to alert them if a driver in front of them is going to swing into their path--watching front wheels, noting if a driver’s head turns, looking for the reflection of the driver’s eyes in rear and side view mirrors, gauging relative speeds, keeping track of the growing or shrinking space between cars. Many of them work at mastering the technique of keeping two fingers tensed on the front brake lever while operating the throttle with the thumb and the other two, while simultaneously working the rear brake pedal--lightly--with their right foot.

“It takes experience,” says Douglas Fitts, manager of the state-funded California Motorcycle Safety Program. “You’re talking about maneuvering a motorcycle in a very confined space.”

If you want to get started, Fitts’ program offers 18-hour CHP-approved classes, in very basic riding skills, throughout the state. The cost ranges from $125 to $160 for age 21 or older, $65 for those under 21. To find the class nearest to you, call (800) CCRIDER.

For those who have the basics down and want to work on advanced skills--with practice sessions on racetracks--try CLASS, headquartered in Ventura and run by respected former racer Reg Pridmore, at (800) 235-7228.

Ernest P. Hansen, who has commuted by motorcycle between Lancaster and Chatsworth for 18 years, tried it twice after the earthquake. Then he chose to move into a Valley motel until the road conditions improve.

Hansen began to worry about his safety after several frustrated car drivers tried to block his path as he maneuvered around them. “I don’t blame them,” he says charitably. “I know what their nerves must be like.”

If you’re a novice motorcyclist and are thinking about lane-splitting, Hansen says: “I wouldn’t suggest it. It takes quite a few months to pick up the signs that people are going to change lanes on you. If you’re going to do it, take it real easy at first.”


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