Good Reasons to Be Cautious on Rainy Roads

Times Staff Writer

Here we go again.

Every year, after Southern California gets its first rain of the season, East Coast transplants and other non-natives living in the sunny Southland issue that same old complaint: “Los Angeles drivers don’t know how to drive in the rain!”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 21, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 347 words Type of Material: Correction
Traffic pileup -- A Behind the Wheel story in Tuesday’s California section about driving in the rain erroneously said that a freeway pileup in Wisconsin took place a week after a similar multi-car accident on the Long Beach Freeway. In fact, the Wisconsin accident occurred about three weeks before the Long Beach Freeway collisions.

“Good golly, a little sprinkle and we get 520-some accidents in Southern California. Puhleeease,” an angry out-of-state driver ranted in an Internet chat room.

On another Web site, someone posted a phony “Los Angeles Driver’s Exam” that included the following test question:


In the instance of rain, you should:

a) Never drive over 5 mph.

b) Drive twice as fast as usual.

c) You’re not sure what “rain” is.

The storm that blew through the state earlier this month brought with it those same old complaints. This time, even the New York Times took a shot at Angelenos, reporting the first shower of the season under the headline: “Los Angeles Can’t Cope as Rain Finally Arrives.”

Before we blindly accept this harsh stereotype about our driving skills, let’s look at the facts.

Last year, Los Angeles County had 60,204 fatal and injury accidents on the road, 2,716 of which occurred during wet weather, according to the California Highway Patrol. That means that only about 5% of all fatal and injury accidents in the county took place in the rain.

If you calculate the same numbers for, say, San Francisco, you’ll find that 8% of its traffic accidents took place in the rain in 2001. Factor in that San Francisco has, on average, nearly twice as many days of rain as Los Angeles and you find that the regions are roughly comparable when it comes to rainy-day accidents. If Angelenos lack rain-driving skills, then our Bay Area brethren are not much better.

But some transplants say the problem is not that Angelenos drive recklessly in the rain. It is that we are overly cautious, driving with one foot glued to the brake pedal at the first sign of a rain cloud overhead.

That is the sentiment of Kenneth R. Crudup, a Chicago native who now lives in Long Beach. Back when he lived in Chicago, Crudup said he could speed through six inches of snow at 55 mph.

But in L.A., he said, motorists panic at the first raindrop.

“It once took me almost three hours to go from Irvine to Marina del Rey at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night, all because of a rain that in most parts of the country many folks wouldn’t even brandish an umbrella in,” Crudup said.

The reason for our overly cautious behavior? It’s not a brain disorder caused by overexposure to Botox and car exhaust. Instead, traffic experts say Angelenos are tentative drivers in the rain simply because we are so rarely exposed to wet weather.

On average, the Los Angeles Basin has only 35 days of measurable rain each year. That’s about 10% of the year. Los Angeles residents enjoy clear, sunny skies 186 days a year.

When a storm came through California two weeks ago, it had been 283 days since the last big rainstorm dropped in on the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

Snow? The last time downtown Los Angeles had any measurable snow, Madonna really was a virgin.

“I don’t think we are inherently bad drivers,” said CHP spokesman Tom Marshall, another Chicago native who now lives in sunny California. “We just don’t have the practice that other drivers have in wet weather.”

Perhaps Chicagoans like Marshall and Crudup learned how to drive in the rain because they had to: “The Windy City” averages about 126 days of rain and about three feet of snow each year. Before they moved to California, Marshall and Crudup probably lived in rain boots and galoshes.

New Yorkers can boast all they want about their superior rain-driving skills, but those bragging rights come with an average of 121 days of rain and at least a week of snow each year.

So, if the big problem with Angelenos is that we drive too slowly in the rain, what’s the problem? That’s what driving experts say we are supposed to do.

“The most important thing to do is slow down because it takes longer to stop in the rain,” said Arline Dillman, traffic safety manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Because it rains so rarely in L.A., she said, more oil, grime and dirt accumulates on our roads, making the pavement extra slippery when the first shower of the season blows into town.

Angelenos also have another incentive to drive extra slow in the rain: Most Southern California freeways are already operating at or beyond capacity, meaning there is very little room for driver error. One tiny motorist miscue in the rain and an entire freeway interchange can turn into an automotive mosh pit.

Consider what happened early one Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago when an unusually heavy fog descended on the Long Beach Freeway, resulting in a 198-car pileup that injured 41 people. Police blamed the accident on excessive speed, blinding fog and typical Southern California traffic. Had the pileup occurred during the weekday rush hour, the toll might have been worse.

(By the way, Angelenos are not the only drivers who have trouble driving in fog. A week after the Long Beach Freeway accident, a similar fog-related pileup killed 10 people in Wisconsin, where lousy driving weather is practically the norm.)

OK, so maybe Angelenos don’t know how to drive in inclement weather. Can you blame us? With only 35 days a year of rain, we rarely get the practice.

If you feel you need more practice driving in lousy weather, here is an idea: Move to Chicago.



Wet, Dry Drives

Critics say Angelenos don’t know how to drive in the rain. Maybe it’s because we are rarely exposed to it. The following is a list of major American cities and the average number of days they have at least 0.01 inches of rain each year.

*--* City Days of Rain

Los Angeles 35

Phoenix 36

San Francisco 67

Philadelphia 117 (plus 20 inches of snow)

Boston 126 (plus 42 inches of snow)

Chicago 126 (plus 38 inches of snow)

New York 121 (plus 28 inches of snow)

Seattle 150 (plus 11 inches of snow)

Portland, Ore 151 (plus six inches of snow)

Buffalo 167 (plus 93 inches of snow)


Source: National Climatic Data Center


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