Sunday, August 31, 2014

Help on the Highway

Highway Call Boxes

The highway call box was introduced in Los Angeles County in the 1960s.  One spur to the innovation was a grim news report: A woman whose car broke down on I-5 was raped by a man who saw her on the road and took advantage of her vulnerable situation.

The idea was that call boxes would allow motorists to report accidents or breakdowns and get help fast.  This made sense at the time:  Cars were far less reliable in those years, and highways far less trafficked.

Anyway, LA County set aside funds and got to work setting up call boxes with land lines at intervals on many highways.  By the mid 1980s, there were 3,500 call boxes in Los Angeles County.  Orange County also established a call box network.

In 1986, the state legislature passed a law authorizing counties to add $1 to annual vehicle registration fees for the purpose of establishing highway call boxes.

Interestingly, this was about the time when drivers began using cell phones in their cars.

In the mid 1980s, Congress also appropriated funds for call boxes and authorized the states to set up call box networks on interstate highways.  It laid out several requirements:

     -- Call box signs should measure at most 12 by 30 inches,

     -- Call boxes should be located no more than five miles apart and

     -- At least 20 percent of call boxes should be located outside metropolitan areas with more than
         50,000 residents.

(This suggests that members of Congress had a lot of time on their hands to consider some pretty trivial regulations.)

Cell Phones and Call Boxes

One California county, Ventura County set up its call phone network in 1989, using state registration fee revenues and a federal earmark.  In 2008, after pretty much everybody in the country had a cellphone, the county updated its call boxes, replacing land lines with cellular connections and adding keyboards and screens for use by hearing-impaired motorists.

As cell phone adoption went up, the use of highway call boxes went down, way down.  San Diego County boxes recorded more than 170,000 calls in 1990, but fewer than 12,000 in 2010.

Transit authorities began closing call boxes and replacing them with signs advising motorists to call 511 with traffic problems.  By 2011 the number of call boxes in Los Angeles County had dropped from 3,500 to fewer than 2,200, only 1,400 of them active.  That year, the boxes were used 30,000 times; only three percent of the calls were for "emergencies," according to the highway patrol. (This suggest a possible market opportunity for AAA.)

Transit authorities and some Californians still want to maintain a call box presence, particularly in areas with poor cell reception, and for travelers whose cellphone batteries have died.  Another justification raised is that some travelers cannot afford cellphones, although the federal government began funding lifeline cellphones for the poor in the 1980s and greatly expanded the program in 1996.

What Next

California's legislation allowing car taxes add-ons for call boxes also allowed the funds collected to go to for other projects of benefit to motorists.  By 2011, San Diego County had a reserve of $12 million collected but not spent for call boxes; it began discussing diverting the money to firefighting helicopters and quick-response tow trucks.

I do not believe any county has cancelled its annual $1 call box fee.  One buck is not a lot of money.  On the other hand, the annual registration fee for a $25,000 car in Los Angeles County is $264, about double that in our other state, New Jersey (which also is known for high taxes.)  Any small reduction would be welcome.


The Significant Other and I made a long drive on a couple of California freeways yesterday.  I punched our destination into a free phone app called WAZE that calculated the most efficient route, given traffic, and tracked us as we traveled.

WAZE also has a social network component, allowing travelers to find out which of their friends are on nearby roads.  (I did not avail myself of this opportunity.)  In addition, drivers can enter information on roadside hazards they encounter.

On several occasions, WAZE made a little noise to alert us that a car was pulled over a half-mile or so up the road.  And it was right.  Every time WAZE warned us to anticipate a stalled car, we saw one, often with a tow truck or highway patrol vehicle alongside.

My question is this:  If WAZE can tell drivers -- and presumably the California Highway Patrol -- the location of every accident and vehicle in distress, why are there ANY Emergency Call Boxes along California roads?

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