Driving in California is always an adventure, in Los Angeles, the sport of driving has been elevated to an art form. Like qualifying for the Indy 500 pole position, you never know who you will be sharing the road with. Some drivers are on their cell phones arguing with their agents, boyfriends or psychiatrists. Others are putting on makeup for that big audition, or suffering from either caffeine overdoses or withdrawal symptoms. Some days it takes a unique mix of passive aggression, anger management and an inner connection with your auto insurance agent to make it safely across our vast freeway expanses.
On a recent drive, we found ourselves traveling north on the Interstate 405 freeway through the treacherous Sepulveda Pass down into the San Fernando Valley. Interstate 405, or the San Diego Freeway is the major north / south artery connecting LA's San Fernando Valley with The West Side of Los Angeles. U.S. 101, or the Ventura Freeway runs east and west along the southern part of The Valley, and connects Los Angeles with Ventura County in the north. These two arteries intersect at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountain range in a tangle of concrete called the 101 / 405 Interchange. This interchange is rated #1 on the list of America's 24 Worst Highway Bottlenecks. To cross The Pass in the old days you needed to use a dirt road called Sepulveda Boulevard. At the top of the mountains it ducked into an art deco tunnel under Mulholland Highway. Today the best route is the 405 Freeway which blasted its way through the rocky mountain pass and now flows over the top of the Santa Monica Mountain range down towards U.S. Route 101. Mulholland crosses over the 405 on a huge steel bridge flying across the freeway.
Under optimum conditions, it is a dangerous section of highway. It has six lanes of cracked and patched asphalt with only painted white lines and Bott's Dots separating you from your fellow drivers. California is attempting a massive improvement project at the 101 / 405 Interchange which just adds to the challenge by turning it into a huge obstacle course. Ominous steel cranes loom over the freeway with distracting signs and construction equipment littering the sides of the road.
The slope on this small stretch of highway is steep, so that just adds to the speeding, careening and screeching. Drivers on the right are frequently stopped or slowing as cars cram into lanes for the Ventura freeway exits. Drivers on the left are usually speeding up in the thinning traffic as they continue north on the 405 through the Valley. If everyone stayed in their lanes the arrangement just might work. Unfortunately that isn't the case.
Cars cut across lanes of traffic because they're going to miss the 101 turn-off. Drivers also slam on their breaks when they realize how steep the grade is and their SUV is picking up too much speed; "Hold the phone honey, I gotta drive". Irritated drivers in the right hand lanes are sick of everyone cutting in line, so they won't let you in. There is a lot of sudden braking and jockeying for position, reminiscent of the Indy 500 on the final laps. The middle lane becomes sort of a no-man's land of crisscrossing cars, like a dangerous ballet of flying steel with flying cell phones and travel mugs.
Until the highway improvements are finished, this interchange raises the thrill level for driving in Los Angeles to an art form. Don't forget to buckle up and in the words of the immortal traffic guru and punster Bill Keene; "Be alert and you won't get hurt".