A Dim View of Drivers Using Dome Lights

Two weeks ago, we shared some of our favorite myths of the California Vehicle Code--things you think are illegal but actually aren’t (such as driving barefoot or changing lanes in an intersection) and the topic brought a flood of letters, e-mail and phone calls. One of our favorites was from Kevin Parker, an English professor at Orange Coast College who is locked in a decidedly nonliterary debate.

“My wife and I recently had a disagreement over the legality of driving, at night, with the interior dome light on,” Parker wrote to us. “Is it legal?”

The answer is yes, it is legal--but there is a caveat. Nothing in the state vehicle code addresses the use of an interior light while driving, so you can’t get a ticket for that. But, if you have that light on because you are reading, let’s say, term papers on Faulkner’s use of symbolism, you might get a citation anyway.

“If you have the light on so you can put on makeup or read something or do other things that distract you from driving, you can be cited for ‘unsafe speed for conditions,’ ” is how California Highway Patrol spokesman Steve Kohler explained it to us. “That’s sort of catch-all law for us. The condition is that you’re reading, so whatever speed you’re going is unsafe.”

But if you have the overhead light on so a passenger can read or your infant in the back seat won’t cry, you aren’t breaking any law we can find. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe. The glare of a dome light can certainly reduce the sharpness of your night vision, and that’s not too bright.


A SECURE SECRET: We love a good mystery. We call this one the “Case of the Padlocked Freeway.” The only problem is we don’t know how it ends.

If you drive south on Fairview Avenue and look to your right as you hit the overpass above the San Diego Freeway, you’ll see what we’re talking about. A thick cluster of locks are hanging on the chain-link fence like weird Christmas ornaments (See photo). Round combination locks and flat, rectangular ones that take a key. Some shiny and new, others almost rusted through. And we’re not talking a few locks here--last week there were 199 locks (yes, we counted) looped through the links in a triangular pattern.

If you go by there in a month, odds are there will be even more locks. It seems this odd exhibit (Street art? Political statement? Hardware advertisement?) is ever growing. Local lore is the odd roadside tradition started in the late 1980s when a handful of locks popped up. But the question remains--why? Costa Mesa Police Lt. Ron Smith said he launched an investigation months ago with no luck. “It’s eating me up,” he confessed. “If you find out, call me back.”

If you know the answer, we’re listening.

ATTENTION SPEEDERS: We’ve all heard about little towns with a reputation as speed traps, but in a city to the south the local cops are fighting a very different reputation. It seems the word is out that Oceanside is a “No Ticket Zone.”

As of last week, the six motor cops who patrol the beach city were running out of traffic tickets--and, according to some reports, a few of them had completely exhausted their supply and were giving speeders and other bad drivers warnings instead of citations.

“We have enough citations to stay in business,” Oceanside Police Capt. Mike Shirley assured us last week. “We’re running very low on supplies though.”

Cops have been digging through boxes in storerooms, flipping through old citation books for unused pages and even calling past employees in their hunt for more ticket forms, Shirley said. “It’s kind of hilarious,” he told one reporter.

How did the department find itself in the embarrassing situation? “Well, a few things combined and piled up,” a weary-sounding Shirley told us.

First, department officials were waiting in June for a state board to finish its periodic review of the wording of citation forms before ordering a new supply. Then they decided to hold off on the order until the new fiscal year started in July. That would have been cutting it close, but things got worse when the company that prints up the citations ran out of the paper they use for the forms.

The agency couldn’t just jot citations on napkins or borrow forms from neighbor cities because those tickets would likely get tossed out by a judge. “The driver could go to court and say they got a ticket in Oceanside but it had Carlsbad scratched out and they were confused,” Shirley said.

The crisis may be over by the time you read this. A rush order of new ticket forms was supposed to be at the station before this morning. “We hope they make it,” Shirley told us.

A quick reminder to you lead-foot types headed south for the summer who have thoughts of gunning the engine when you hit Oceanside: It’s still the CHP that handles Interstate 5. And they have plenty of tickets.

MOTORMANIA: For the first time, there are more than 200 million vehicles registered to drive the nation’s freeways, highways and byways, a new study shows.

The staggering milestone was reached when more than 15 million newly registered cars rolled onto roads during the 12-month period ending in June--about 2.8 million more than the number of old cars scrapped in the same period.

“Thirty years after the country’s human population surpassed 200 million, the number of vehicles in operation has done the same,” said Glenn Forbes, a vice president for the Polk Co., which compiled the study through state records.

How does Orange County size up? As of Dec. 31, 1997, there were exactly 1,984,208 cars, trucks and motorcycles listed locally in the Department of Motor Vehicles’ records.

For California as a whole, there were 25,791,370, easily the most of any state. No wonder cops are running out of tickets.

THIS WEEK’S TIP: Frustrated by a face full of exhaust? Fancy yourself an air-quality vigilante? Summer is the smog season, so here’s how to drop a dime on polluting drivers:

Call (800) CUT-SMOG (that’s 288-7664 if you hate hunting for letters on the phone) with the license plate number of a car producing visible exhaust, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District will mail the offender a notice. The bad news is the letter is just a notice--the agency can’t issue a citation. The good news is that many of the more than 8,000 people reported each month clean up their act after getting the letter, according to an agency spokeswoman.

The Roads Scholar wants to hear your insights, stories and questions about traffic, the commuting experience and Orange County transportation issues. You can call him at (714) 966-5724, send e-mail to geoff.boucher@ or mail letters to him at The Times Orange County, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Please include your full name, hometown and phone number.