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The AtomBrain Guide to
Driving in Los Angeles

(c) 2000 Jan S. Strnad

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to step through the mirror like Alice and enter a world in which nothing made any sense? You can find out simply by driving a car in Los Angeles.

Driving in L. A. is a lot like stepping through the looking glass or tumbling down a rabbit hole into Wonderland. Street signs lie to you! People don't try to avoid accidents, they cause them! Often the automobiles don't move but the telephone booths do!

Wow...what fun!

Unless you're trying to actually get somewhere. In that case, you'll want to read the following tips.


The extensive freeway system in the L.A. area is a wonderful boon to traffic flow. By siphoning off millions of cars onto congested freeways where traffic often comes to a complete standstill because of an accident blocking lanes, or an accident off the side of the road that everyone has to slow down and gawk at, or a mudslide or a shoulder fire or sometimes for no reason that anyone can discern at all, the normal city streets are free to carry only three or four times as much traffic as they were designed to carry.

One marvelously confusing aspect of driving on the freeways, or finding them, is the system used to name freeways and point you to them. The system was designed by an insane person or, more likely, by a committee of insane persons.

For example, each freeway will have a name and a number. However, names and numbers are not necessarily linked with one another so that:

The 101 Freeway is the Ventura Freeway, except where the 101 is the Hollywood Freeway, or where the Ventura Freeway is the 134, though the 134 may also be the Foothill Freeway.

Ignoring the names helps, but it gets confusing again when we add compass points: The 101 North is also the 101 West, and the 101 South is also the 101 East.

So, if you're on a city street looking for the 101 Freeway going north, you may want to follow the signs to the Ventura Freeway or the Hollywood Freeway. You may follow a sign that promises to take you to the 101 North only to find when you reach the freeway entrance that the sign says "101 West." If you don't know that these freeways are one and the same, you'll pass the exit and spend the next two hours searching for the entrance marked "101 North," which doesn't exist.

The signs may even place you on a different freeway entirely, and I'll show you how that works in a minute.

Heading the proper direction when a freeway branches can also be a challenge. The signs will rarely tell you what direction each branch heads (north, south, east or west) but will tell you what city they'll take you to.

Oddly, they'll rarely name the city you're likely to be driving to, but will choose a more distant one apparently at random.

Here's an example from my own daily life.

Let's say I want to go from my home in west Los Angeles (not to be confused with West Los Angeles, all capitals, which is a specific part of the generic west L.A.) to Hollywood. I want to get on the 405 Freeway going north.

I know that the freeway entrance I want is on Bundy Street, so I turn onto Centinela Street knowing that Centinela, once I turn on it, will suddenly become "Bundy," kind of like a stray dog that answers to any name you call.

Now I'm on Bundy, wanting the entrance to the 405, so I turn onto the freeway entrance marked "10" which would seem to put me on the 10 Freeway. This entrance puts me directly onto the 405. If I really wanted the 10 I'd have to cross several lanes of traffic to get there.

Once I'm on the 405, I want to go north to Hollywood, about 13 miles away. The freeway branches, and the signs tell me that I can go either to "Long Beach" or "Sacramento." Long Beach is about 27 miles to the south, Sacramento is about 385 miles to the north. Since I want to go to Hollywood, I choose the "Sacramento" branch.

I want to get off on Ventura Boulevard, so I take the 405 North to the "Ventura Boulevard" exit which, of course, puts me on Sepulveda Street, not Ventura Boulevard, but you can drive there from here if you know which way to turn.

And so it goes.

Road Hazards

Aside from the occasional sink hole that may appear without warning and swallow entire cars and busses, caused by digging a subway tunnel in an earthquake zone (the Metropolitan Transit Authority is reconsidering this idea), the main road hazards you'll encounter are human, or nearly so.

The worst are those who don't know the difference between an automobile and a telephone booth. Yes, it's the cell phone users who persist in carrying on animated conversations while driving despite the well-publicized fact that a person talking on a cell phone is as likely to be involved in an accident as a drunk. If they are both talking and drunk, the odds quadruple.

Look out for anyone driving and talking on a cell phone. Treat them as you'd treat a drunken driver and you may escape unscathed.

Another hazard is the group of people who purposely stage accidents for the insurance money. They are employed by lawyers and doctors to force you into rear-ending them. Then they'll all stagger out of the car massaging their necks while the money in your wallet flies away on little cartoon wings.

They almost always strike on the freeway. Their technique is to box you in between two cars. The lead car (usually a beater full of Hispanics...sorry about the racial stereotyping but it's true) cuts you off, the side car boxes you in, the lead car hits its brakes and you rear-end it. The accident is legally your fault. Enter the crooked doctor to certify the injuries and the crooked lawyer to sue, and your auto insurance skyrockets.

The remedy: Don't tailgate. Be vigilant. Be insured. (One-third of California drivers aren't.)


The problem with pedestrians is that they can't distinguish between driving and walking. They are all drivers who've gotten so accustomed to being surrounded by 2000 pounds of steel that, when they exit their cars, they forget how vulnerable they are. They walk like they drive: obliviously.

In an attempt to weed out the stupidest portion of the population, California enacted a law which states that pedestrians always have the right of way. Only an idiot would step out in front of moving traffic and expect it to come to a dead stop for him. L.A. is full of idiots.

They jaywalk. They stand and chat in grocery store driveways. They walk behind cars that are backing out of parking stalls. They stride into crosswalks as if surrounded by impenetrable force fields. And they die by the scores, but there seems to be an endless supply of them.

Running them over, however, is technically illegal and will get you into trouble, so expect the unexpected.

The Police

We have a crime here called DWB...driving while black.

Things got really bad during the 1970s and continued into the 1990s...can you say "Rodney King?"

The L.A.P.D. has gotten better, but even now we're seeing a slew of convicts being released from prison due to police being caught planting evidence on suspects.

(Just for the record, I still think O.J. killed Nicole and Ron, but the black community's suspicion of the police, planted evidence and coverups is not unwarranted.)

I've generally had quite positive relations with the police. But then, I'm white.

There's a double standard. It isn't right. But it's there. Still.

Places to Avoid

On the other hand, the police may definitely be your best friends if you find yourself in certain locations after dark.

You aren't likely to be in East L.A. or the Crenshaw District (south-central) or Highland Park (south Pasadena) unless you've followed street signs promising to take you somewhere else, but if you do find yourself there, take reasonable precautions. Like crawling into the glove box.

Also, certain "tourist destinations" are definitely to be avoided when the sun goes down, especially if you're alone and unarmed.

Hollywood. Known for the Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theater, Hollywood is also famous among locals for prostitutes (Hugh Grant got caught here), drug dealers and other miscellaneous undesirables. Try to catch its attractions in the daytime, or travel in packs.

North Hollywood. A municipality separate from "Hollywood," North Hollywood claims all the unsavoriness and none of the charm. Avoid "NoHo" if you can...not that you're likely to go there for any reason, but you might think it sounds interesting. It isn't.

Venice Beach. Aka "Muscle Beach," Venice sports a plethora of colorful characters who juggle chainsaws and tell fortunes and paint temporary tattoos. It's one of my favorite summertime locations...during the day. Come nightfall, the street performers skeedaddle and the streets are owned by thugs and gangbangers. Don't be there.

Downtown. Don't even think about it.

In Summary

Los Angeles is a fine place to visit with unique offerings to tourists. Finding your way around can be a challenge, however, so arm yourself with good directions and/or a guide.

Stay with the group.

Carry a cell phone (but don't use it while driving).

Enjoy yourself.

Go home.