Growing up I participated in my fair share of drag racing on public roads. Actually, truth be told, I participated in my fair share, plus about 18 other guys' fair share, too. But I never crashed, I never caused any personal or property damage, and I had a hell of a lot of fun.
The main cruising strip on the west side of Denver was Colfax, and it was conveniently close to my parents' house. Every Friday and Saturday night from 1985 to 1987 you could find me out there in one of my Plymouth GTXs. Accompanying me were several thousand other "cruisers" in everything from 5.0-liter Mustangs (very hot in the mid-1980s) to '69 Chevelles to '73 Camaros. Colfax was three lanes wide in each direction, and dotted with stoplights and fast-food joints every few hundred yards. It may not have been Woodward Avenue, but it was the closest thing we had in the Mile High City, and a pretty fair facsimile for Rocky Mountain-based enthusiasts.
Then one Friday night, in the spring of 1988, I headed out to Colfax for my regular regimen of high-octane high jinks, only to find pylons and traffic cops directing every vehicle off Colfax on either side of the prime cruising zone.
"What, did a truck carrying nuclear waste flip over?" was my first thought (remember, these were the days of predomestic terrorism). Nope. Turns out the cops had decided that "cruising" was both unlawful and dangerous, so the whole scene was being shut down. Specific complaints came from car dealer lots located along Colfax. Apparently some sundry characters were tossing beer bottles onto the lots as they drove by, causing damage to vehicles parked along the strip, and this, along with the occasional complaint regarding noise and traffic congestion, was enough to instigate the closure of the street on weekend nights.
That reasoning didn't make sense to me at the time, and it has failed to make sense in the ensuing two decades. Wouldn't it be smarter to park some unmarked patrol cars in strategic locations and nail the individuals causing the problem, rather than punishing the entire cast of cruisers? Especially since the latter action probably let the real criminals off the hook (I'm betting they never caught the beer-bottle pitchers by shutting down the cruise nights ).
Of course, I've always had a problem with letting the troublesome few ruin it for the larger trouble-free group, but I see it happen all the time. This exact same chain of events is what closed down the original, and legendary, Woodward Avenue in Detroit in the early 1970s. More recently it has meant closing down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood on weekend nights. Sunset Boulevard for crying out loud! Didn't they name a movie after that street? Isn't it more commonly referred to as "the Sunset Strip" because of the endless array of famous (and legendary) buildings, billboards and bosoms? Yet you're not supposed to actually "cruise" along Sunset and enjoy the sights, right?
Thankfully, ever since I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago I've been able to enjoy an as-yet-unfettered stretch of pavement in Southern California. What started out as a regular "Sunday Morning Ride" on my Ducati 851 back in the mid-1990s quickly transformed into an official new car test loop once I took a position at Edmunds.com in 1998. And as anyone who has driven it can confirm, the twisting ribbon of pavement known as Mulholland Drive between Calabasas and the Pacific Coast Highway is about as good as public roads get when it comes to wringing out a modern car or motorcycle. With a healthy mix of fast, sweeping curves and tighter low-speed transitions, all connected by straight stretches that are perfect for quick throttle blasts, Mulholland Drive almost feels like a road test editor designed it.
And the best part? The speed limit on twisty Mulholland Drive is 55 mph, meaning you can travel it in a Porsche 911 Turbo or Ferrari 360 at around eight-tenths pace and still not be breaking the law (except maybe on the straights if you come blasting out of a set of curves and simply stay on the throttle — which of course I never do). There's no denying that the ultimate vehicle evaluation site remains a closed course test facility, but it's nice to know there's still a stretch of road where you can effectively, and legally, drive a performance car (or motorcycle) the way it was meant to be driven.
At least, it was nice to know that, until recently. In the last year that 55-mph speed limit has been cut to 35 mph. Not 45, not 40, but 35 mph! Just to provide perspective, that's the same limit for commercial zones in a city. If you've been on the final 10 miles of westbound Mulholland Highway before intersecting PCH, you know it isn't a commercial zone. It's hardly even a residential zone because along that 10-mile stretch you pass, like seven houses.
Now comes word of a new California Highway Patrol initiative called "Operation Safe Canyons." According to the press release, the purpose is to "confront the growing problem of illegal racing and other unsafe driving practices on the various canyon roads traversing the Santa Monica Mountains." Accident data indicates that approximately eight people a year have been killed on these roads each of the last two years.
I don't know about you, but eight people doesn't exactly sound like much of a "growing problem of illegal racing and other unsafe driving practices." I've been out on those roads on the weekends for the last 10 years, and I see hundreds of people out there with me. Those are just the hundreds that I see. Each weekend. And that's just on the roads I travel (this region is pretty wide spread).
Let's do some math. If there are 300 people each weekend day that use the Santa Monica Mountains for recreational purposes (motorcycling, sports car driving, evaluating road test vehicles, etc.), then that's 600 people a weekend. Times 52 weekends a year gives you 31,200 people a year using the area (and I suspect my estimated numbers are way low compared to the actual people using this region — it could easily be 50,000 to 100,000 people or more).
As with Colfax 20 years ago, it seems more efficient to punish the eight squids a year who drive in an unsafe manner versus trying to punish the other 31,192 of us who don't. And since the punishment of death is probably about as effective a resolution as you're going to come up with in this situation, it further seems like the situation is taking care of itself. Of course, I wouldn't want to suggest that "Operation Safe Canyons" might be yet another excuse to blow taxpayer money and/or generate revenue by creating unrealistic speed limits and having extra cops to enforce them. Actually, I think I do want to suggest that.
I suppose it could be worse. At least they haven't started closing down Mulholland altogether yet.