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New cell phone service helps stranded drivers

on September 16, 2008


audio slide show by HENRY JONES and CHRISTINA SALERNO

Sept. 16 — With fewer than 200 people a month using the bright yellow call boxes that dot Bay Area freeways, transportation authorities are turning to a different device to help stranded motorists: cell phones.

Drivers with a flat tire, empty gas tank or broken radiator can now dial 511 from their cell phones and ask for “freeway aid” when prompted. That connects them with a San Francisco-based operator who will dispatch a tow-truck to their aid – the same service people receive when dialing for help from a yellow call box. 

The new 511 service doesn’t mean call boxes will disappear from the Bay Area’s roadside landscape.

A network of more than 2,200 call boxes along 540 miles of Bay Area freeways will remain in place for drivers without cell phones or for those with spotty phone service, said John Goodwin, spokesman for the state Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The agency manages the 511 system along with the California Highway Patrol and California Department of Transportation.

“There will be a backbone system of call boxes that will be upgraded to digital service,” Goodwin said Monday at an impromptu press conference in a parking lot at the Bay Bridge toll plaza, with streams of traffic lining up in the background.

The call boxes have seen a “steady decline” of users in the last two decades, Goodwin said, coinciding with the increase in popularity of cell phones. The number of calls placed from the boxes has plummeted from about 1,800 a month in the early 1990s to about 175 a month in 2008, he said.

Since its launch last week, the 511 freeway aid service has received an average of 120 calls a day for assistance, said Stefanie Pow, MTC program coordinator.

 That’s expected to increase to as many as 1,000 to 1,500 calls a month as the public learns more about the 511 call system, which is free and available to all users in the Bay Area, even if calling with an out-of-state cell phone, said Jaime Maldonado, MTC program coordinator.

During peak weekday commuting hours – generally 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. – motorists who call 511 will be met by a Bay Area Freeway Service Patrol tow-truck driver. The freeway service patrol, a fleet of 83 tow-trucks that cruise freeway routes in search of broken-down vehicles, will provide a gallon of gas, help with a minor car repair or towing for free.

“At other times, towing is provided by companies that operate on a rotational basis under contract with California Highway Patrol and Caltrans,” Goowin said. “These operators charge for their services.”

CHP Officer Sam Morgan

CHP Officer Sam Morgan

 More than 13,000 drivers were assisted by the roving tow-trucks in the month of July, with an average wait of 8.7 minutes, according to statistics from the freeway service patrol.

The freeway service patrol has been in operation since 1992 and was created to supplement the call box system, as well as to quickly clear up accidents or debris in the road. The tow-truck drivers patrol freeway routes that have the most severe traffic congestion, frequent accidents or lack adequate shoulder space. Funding only allows for the patrol to provide free roadside assists during rush-hour commutes, when a driver stalled on the side of the road could worsen congestion.

—story continues below slideshow—

The freeway service patrol, call boxes and 511 are funded through a $1 vehicle registration fee on all cars in the Bay Area, or about $6 million a year, Goodwin said. It was a “minimal cost” to upgrade the system to include freeway assistance from cell phones, he said, because the infrastructure was already in place.

Although roadside assistance is a new addition to 511, the call system itself has been around since 2002. It covers nine counties in the Bay Area, including Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma counties.

Callers can access a voice-activated menu that provides traffic updates, public transit timetables, bicycling and ridesharing information, as well as estimated driving times when stuck in traffic. The same information can be accessed on the Internet at

Goodwin said the roadside assistance feature has been in the planning for about four years. It was modeled after a similar program in Los Angeles County – accessed there by dialing #399 – that has been successful in reducing the number of calls to the 911 emergency system.

“That experience prompted the expansion to the Bay Area,” Goodwin said.

Safety was another consideration in upgrading the system to include cell phone service, eliminating the need for people to walk alongside the shoulder of a busy freeway to reach a call box, never a pleasant experience.

Goodwin can personally attest to that.

His car broke down on the I-80 in Berkeley about 13 years ago, when he was traveling alone with his infant son. Goodwin had just wrapped his arms around his son and began to trek along the freeway in search of a call box when a freeway service patrol tow-truck spotted him and pulled over to help. 

“Nobody wants to be in that situation,” Goodwin said.||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

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