CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

“JAGU VS SCION VS RANGER VS VAN”: The Secret Window Onto California Traffic Life

Photo by Kris Kros/Flickr

I have an admittedly strange fascination with the California Highway Patrol’s “Traffic Incident Information Page.

For the uninitiated, the page essentially displays the raw data coming in from CHP units in the field (or via the calls that dispatchers receive) as they respond to a staggering variety of traffic “incidents” across the state’s vast network of highways — debris on the roadway (8:21AM LARGE PAPER ROLL IN # 2), vehicle fires, crashes, stalled cars, etc. They are read by traffic reporters, among others, not to mention the curious sorts (did I just implicate myself?) who spend their free time listening to police-band radio.

The entries have a telegraphic brevity, filled with curious abbreviations and numerical incident codes — many of which are beyond me — and fragments (e.g., “5:54AM BIG RIG VS PK TK”; i.e., a tractor-trailer collided with a pickup truck — no injuries, thankfully, but note the almost confrontational gloss the “vs” puts on it), and there is a kind of poetry of economy in the language. If Beckett were out driving the 405, he might appreciate reports like this as a kind of avant-garde literary form:

6:06AM PRTYS NOW IN OWN VEHS // NO LONGER LL W/ RP #2
6:06AM RP ADVS HE IS BACK IN VEH IN CD / SAG D
6:05AM RP RAN ACROSS FRWY BACK TO CD TO HIS VEH /// SAG D
6:02AM RP ADVSING PRTY IN SIL TOYT RAN HIM OFF RDWY // ALSO SLAMMED ON BRAKES
6:01AM 1039 SJSO
6:00AM MAR LANDCRUISER IN CD // SIL TOYT ON RHS
5:58AM POSS HV // MAR LANDCRUISER VS SIL TOYT

Sometimes one wants to imagine an entire story behind the staccato details that churn across the transom; there are the occasional mentions, for example, of someone walking down the middle of a freeway (e.g., this morning, “8:36AM STUMBLING AROUND; WALKING IN NB LANES”) — how did they get there? how did they get to that point in their life where they got to the middle of that freeway? Reading a batch of these in a row — a sort of urgent Dow Jones data-feed from that great bustling market of highway traffic — you can begin to appreciate the sheer drama of a typical day on Californian roads. There are tales of loss, tales of heroism, tales of the mundane, and, sometimes, tales of darkly absurdist comedy. What are we to make, for example, of this episode, sent to me by a traffic reporter:

ADDITIONAL DETAILS
5:33PM VEH IS A BLU HOND ACC, FACING SIDEWAYS IN LANES, VEH WAS TRYING TO MAKE A UTURN WHEN PASS FELL OUT OF VEH
5:32PM NEG TC
5:32PM WHEN THE VEH WENT AROUND THE CORNER // THE PASS JUST FELL OUT OF THE PASSENGER SIDE
5:31PM VEH IS STILL THERE // RED IN COLOR // UNK WHAT TYPE
5:31PM PASS FELL OUT OF VEH // HAD BEER IN HER HAND WHEN SHE FELL OUT OF THE VEH

One reason the CHP incident page so inherently fascinates me, as a reader of police procedurals, is that they too are written in the curious form police language. As with the above entry, it combines an exacting investigatory feel (the strange details like the “beer in her hand”; or in another entry, “WILL BE POSS HIT AND RUN, SIL SPORTS CAR, PLATE LAYING ON DASHBOARD, YPUNG MALE DRIVER, L/S TWD HACIENDA,” that ‘plate lying on dashboard’ is a somehow sordid detail out of Ross MacDonald) with a kind of sober professionalism in the face of the most astonishing events (like someone falling out of the car with a beer in her hand). Just the facts, m’am.

I’m not sure if any screenplay ideas (or kernels) have ever been hatched from the CHP site (e.g., the car dealer who was run over by the car stolen from his own lot), but just watching the events unfold is to feel as if one is in the midst of a great narrative, driven by a sense of palpable urgency — for these dispatches can not only be crucial to someone’s life, but crucial to the flow of the highway. The “animal on the road” (typically dogs, often labs, and it’s really rather shocking how often it occurs — one thinks that dog owners, like drivers, should be licensed) that comes across in a CHP incident can disrupt the flow of thousands of lives.

Like on the internet itself, the first draft of the first draft of history, sometimes the information that comes across doesn’t hold up to further scrutiny. Take, for example, this grisly announcement that appeared one day:

ADDITIONAL DETAILS
12:11AM - 1039 LAFD 82
12:11AM - BLKING #2 3 LNS
12:11AM - POSS BODY ON THE RDWY SHOES / TORSO AND IS BEING RUN OVER

Horrifying, but, it turned out, not true — it was, rather, some piece of debris (and how many times have we struggled to make out, moving at high speed, some piece of detritus on the asphalt, ghoulishly conjuring a body that turns out to be a rolled-up carpet). Much of the information is like this, fleeting, grasping for details, and, often, merely a “phantom incident,” a bit of “noise” flicking the seismographic needle but not registering. But the reader barely has time to fill in the missing details in their head before another incident refreshes its way into view.

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This entry was posted on Friday, November 21st, 2008 at 10:39 am and is filed under Cities, Etc., Roads, Traffic Culture, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to ““JAGU VS SCION VS RANGER VS VAN”: The Secret Window Onto California Traffic Life”

  1. Pete W Says:

    This post reminds me of the time I saw several emergency vehicles on the 91 in Buena Park, California. I went home and loaded CHiP TIiP to see what had happened. A car, heading eastbound, had rolled several time ejecting its driver. According to the dispatch, the driver of a vehicle heading westbound has exited the freeway and stopped at McDonalds to report that they thought they had hit a body. As I remember it, it turned out that the driver had been ejected into oncoming traffic–grisly indeed!

    I remember driving up the 5 in Anaheim when I saw what looked like a body in the road. It was indistinguishable, but resembling a body enough, that I had to circle back to verify it wasn’t.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage: krunde@randomhouse.com.

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency: zoe@zpagency.com.

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau: rhspeakers@randomhouse.com.

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Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from Amazon.co.uk.

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
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September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
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October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
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October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
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January 19
Yale University
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Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
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April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
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Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum
Toronto

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
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Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013
BoingBoing.com “Ingenuity” Conference
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September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Communications.
Grand Rapids MI

 

 

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