“JAGU VS SCION VS RANGER VS VAN”: The Secret Window Onto California Traffic Life
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:
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:
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.
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. Both comments and pings are currently closed.