DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION
By Rachel Uranga, Staff Writer

Los Angeles Daily News, CA
Aug. 31, 2006

Felicia Montgomery used to hate traffic. But gridlock now occupies a
special place in the heart of the 40-year-old personnel clerk. If not
for a chance encounter during a bumper-to-bumper trip home last year,
she would not have found the man of her dreams.

"Some people complain about road rage. Well, I fell in love on the
freeway," said a giddy Montgomery, who met her fiance while stuck in
traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway.

For L.A. commuters, who spend more than 93 hours a year in
rush-hour traffic - more than those in any other city in the U.S. -
the precious moments sitting behind the wheel are often spent doing
things authorities say they shouldn't.

And a new study finds they'll be looking for even more diversions.

The Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation predicts that by 2030, driving
during rush hour will take twice as long as it would take during
off-peak hours. Already, average speeds can slow to 13 mph during
rush hour on the Ventura Freeway through the San Fernando Valley.

"L.A. has now set the mold that is being followed by Atlanta, Miami,
Dallas, (Washington) D.C. and Chicago," said Robert Poole, director
of transportation studies for the Libertarian think tank.

"This (behavior) really frightens me. There are accidents because
of this. But it's completely understandable. People are desperate to
figure out something to do."

So Angelenos - who spend an average of 23.4 minutes commuting one
way to work - are going to continue coping with the traffic in their
own way.

Stella Chalian, 31, blushes as she talks about her grinding, two-hour,
round-trip commute on the 134 and 101 freeways.

"I do all the calling - the doctor, the credit card companies,"
Chalian said. "I write bills. Because it makes you feel good that
you are not so stupid being stuck in traffic for so long."

And, of course, she does her makeup, sometimes in the rearview mirror
of her 2006 BMW 325.

"I wake up five minutes later because I can put makeup on in my car,"
she said. "I am just sitting there idle. I would go crazy if I didn't
do something. It saves me from insanity."

Between the 134, 101 and 405 freeways, Officer Leland Tang, a spokesman
for the California Highway Patrol, has seen it all - couples kissing
while driving, men shaving and women flat-ironing their hair.

"The whole multitasking while driving is a recipe for disaster,"
Tang said.

"Rear-end collisions are the No. 1 type of collision encountered in
the Valley. A high number of them are from speeding and most of them
may have an element of distraction, but (drivers) are not going to
admit it at the time."

But for all the finger-wagging at commuters, even Tang was impressed
by Montgomery's commuter love connection.

With no air conditioning and the radio on the fritz, the personnel
clerk was just beginning to settle in to her daily, 45-minute commute
from downtown to the San Gabriel Valley. Then, her soon-to-be-fianc
called out, "Hey, pretty lady! Hey, pretty lady!"

"I just kept saying to myself, `Don't turn around, don't look. You
know how people get shot on the freeway."'

But after eight calls, she did. She gave Edward Bielucke her cell-phone
number, and three dates later, she started to fall in love.

Montgomery, a widow, said her deceased husband is the angel that must
have sent Bielucke.

Most Angelenos aren't that blessed. Though Poole points out that
even dating patterns are determined by the couple's proximity to one
another, most use the time for more mundane activities, like singing
or learning a language on tape.

But for some, the car doubles as a boardroom or a rolling office.

Garen Vartanyan, a 47-year-old gas station owner and Glendale real
estate broker, stores his files in his trunk, where he can always
grab them before the next meeting.

"My car is a second office. I have everything I need here. I have my
files, my suit, my appointment book," he said, pointing to the trunk
of his 2002 BMW X-5.

There are also routines developed around time in the car - from
choosing the right traffic report to buying a single cup of coffee
before kicking off the Prada stilettos to ensure they aren't scratched
by the gas pedal.

Identities form or are reflected by one's vehicle. Vartanyan, who can
sometimes spend up to four hours a day in his car, wears his identity
on his license plate - HIBROKR. "Hi" means "Armenian" in Armenian.

Radio is formatted for car listeners, and doctors even have special
names for a condition caused by anger behind the wheel - road rage.

Traffic patterns and shortcuts become the topic of water-cooler
conversations and cocktail party chats.

But Poole said if Angelenos are going to live their lives outside
their SUVs, convertibles and clunkers, transportation officials need to
dedicate more money to freeway infrastructure - double-decker freeways
and toll roads that would allow motorists to travel farther faster,
rather than investing in short-range public transit.

Local and state officials say developing a balanced approach -
making highway and public-transit improvements as well as building
transit-friendly development - is the best way to reduce congestion.

For now, many of the freeways remain a parking lot.

The latest figures show that during the most congested time during
the evening rush hour, the 405 near the 101 interchange slows to
an average 16.7 mph. The 101 near the 405 interchange grinds to an
average 13.2 mph.

By 2030, with no infrastructure changes, the Southern California
Association of Governments predicts that average rush-hour speeds
along the same stretch of the 405 will slow to 4.1 mph and the 101
to 6.2 mph.

Steve Ries says he's already become accustomed to the idling. He
commutes for more than two hours round-trip - sometimes three -
from his home in Valencia to his job as an elevator serviceman in
Warner Center.

To pass the time and distract him from the stresses of traffic,
he catches up with his colleague via phone.

"He's my driving buddy. We talk on the walkie-talkie while sitting.

We talk about family, complain about work, a little bit about
everything," he said. "So I don't get overly stressed."

Ries, who can wind up driving for four or five hours in a day, said
it keeps his temper cool and him from becoming too focused on the road.

"Everyone is in a hurry," he said. "People are constantly cutting
each other off. They don't use turn signals. Then you will see the
person that gets cut off cut somebody else off to get to the car
that cut them off. Then you see arms flailing and you think they are
cursing. It's just terrible."

Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern
California, said to de-stress, people should allow enough time to
get to their destination.

"Listen to your favorite music," he said. "It sounds simplistic,
but those are key things."

Caroline Miceli, a college fundraising specialist for Scripps College,
has her own solution - books on tape.

"I am going through a self-help topic right now. It's amazing how
many books I have gone through," said the 27-year-old, who commutes
for about an hour and 15 minutes from Hermosa Beach to Claremont in
her Toyota Prius. "I only wish I could exercise in my car."

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