Vincent O’Brien rises before 5 a.m. most mornings at his Azusa home, heads to the 10 freeway and drives the distance to Tucson, Arizona — without leaving Southern California. Indeed, O’Brien runs up that mileage on just one stretch of the 10, roughly between the 710 and the 605, which he travels in a continuous loop.
O’Brien is a driver for the Metro Freeway Service Patrol, the white trucks that roam freeways all day under a county-state program to give free help to stranded motorists. Getting them on their way quickly can prevent lengthy traffic delays on clogged arterials.
The job isn’t as easy — or safe — as you might think. When you’re happily cruising along at 70, as the automobile gods had intended when they turned this wide-open patch of pristine coastal desert into a veritable “car paradise” all those decades ago, the freeway feels like the most carefree place in the world.
But if you are forced to stop, a freeway becomes a hostile, gray, concrete canyon of death, with multiton chunks of metal whizzing by at inhuman speeds.
“Everything on the freeway has its danger,” says the highly focused yet genial O’Brien, the son of an Irish father and Latino mother, who grew up in nearby East L.A. “Maybe you’re pulled over but sticking out on the road a little too much. Or you’re driving and you know what you’re doing, but does the person driving behind you know what you’re gonna do?”
The job requires strong nerves and a stronger stomach. O’Brien’s been first on scene at a double-fatal bus accident on the 210 and a suicide jump from a 20-foot-high carpool-lane ramp near Cal State LA. He once approached a car blocking an on-ramp, knocked on the window, only to find the man inside holding a gun to his own head.
Another time, a motorcyclist doing 80 sideswiped a car and went down, the cyclist correctly “tucking and rolling” his way over to what appeared to be a safe spot in lane three, where a tractor trailer then ran over his head, O’Brien says.
As for the tow-truck drivers themselves, “it gets hairy out there,” O’Brien says. “Freeways don’t have the same-sized shoulders. You got to get used to it. That’s why I always walk around the front of my truck to the door, instead of the back, cause it’s the shortest distance.
“Once, one of our drivers got into a pretty bad accident because he was speeding, trying to get to another accident, and he caused one himself.”
Not long ago, a AAA driver was killed while walking between his own tow vehicle and the car he was towing.
So the drivers undergo a crash course in safety. “We have to do a week of in-house training — various types of vehicles and hookups — and then log a certain amount of hours of ride-along with another driver who’s already certified, then do a test with CHP, and they also do a ride along with us.”
To watch O’Brien change a left-side flat tire with only a few feet between himself and speeding vehicles is to appreciate the human mind’s ability to shut out thoughts of potentially major risk to the body. Tractor trailers barrel past, accompanied by a suction of wind, and the roar of the traffic creates an overwhelming white noise.
Sometimes he and his colleagues need to stop in a middle lane, behind a broken-down car that couldn’t even make it over to the shoulder. “We have just flashing amber lights. We don’t have red lights like the fire department, or red-and-blue lights like the CHP. The respect isn’t there, as far as amber goes.”
According to O’Brien, amber light has also been shown to actually attract tired or “impaired” drivers.
“We try to make it as safe as possible,” he says. “The minute you get sloppy out there, the minute you disrespect the highway, it’s gonna disrespect you.”
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