TALES FROM THE FREEWAY : Roadside Respite : When Nature Calls and You’re Not There Yet


Ah, the age-old human predicament: trying to find a clean, safe public restroom while traveling this country’s highways and byways. The experience can be almost as much an adventure as travel itself.

The freeways of North County are liberally lined with gas stations and 24-hour restaurants, but there is only one place--near Oceanside--that the state has officially labeled a “rest area.” Here are some facts about the ins and outs of roadside respite.

How many rest areas are there along North County freeways?

The Aliso Creek rest area on Interstate 5 just north of Oceanside is the only state-operated rest stop in North County.


It is the busiest of all the 90 rest areas in California, said Tom Nipper, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation. More than 5 million people stop there each year, the average visit lasting about 20 minutes

Caltrans had the rest area built in 1973 at the urging of the U.S. Marine Corps--not for the Marines, but for the growing number of motorists who would simply stop their cars on the freeway to catch a glimpse of the Marines doing their daily exercises and drills.

A couple of areas of the Aliso Creek rest stop are raised so motorists can get a good view of the Marines in action.

What about reports of crime at Aliso Creek?

For most people, the Aliso Creek rest area is just that, a place to stop for lunch, use the bathroom or sit on the grass for a few minutes, Nipper said.

However, there is a contingent of homeless people who make the rest area their permanent address, and over the years Aliso Creek has become a haven for illegal activities, the California Highway Patrol said.

The CHP is responsible for patrolling Aliso Creek, but there is no round-the-clock private security there, said Jerry Bohrer, a spokesman for the agency. When a crime has been committed, such as a car theft or assault, the Sheriff’s Department is called in to investigate.


Prostitution, homosexual activity, drug deals, car theft and trafficking in stolen merchandise all occur at Aliso Creek, Bohrer said. The rest stop has also become a gathering place for illegal migrants waiting for an opportunity to get around the San Onofre Border Patrol checkpoint north of the rest stop on I-5.

A state grant of $150,000 is enabling the CHP and Caltrans to “clean the place up,” Bohrer said. The money will allow the CHP to increase enforcement through overtime shifts and extra officers, he said.

Assemblyman Robert C. Frazee (R-Carlsbad) introduced legislation in March to have the Aliso Creek rest area shut down. That bill was expected to be heard this week on the Assembly floor.

What facilities does the Aliso Creek rest area provide?

Because it handles such a large volume of travelers each year, Aliso Creek has been divided into two areas and is designed to accommodate both north- and southbound motorists, Nipper said.

On the northbound side, the rest area covers 12 acres, has 14 picnic tables, 82 parking spaces for cars and 27 spaces for big rigs. Perhaps most important are the two restrooms--four stalls for men and six for women.

Because the southbound rest area gets slightly more traffic, it is the bigger of the two areas, covering nearly 15 acres. There are 32 picnic tables, 89 parking spaces for cars and 29 spaces for big trucks. Restrooms are similar to those on the northbound side.


Both areas have handicap access to the restrooms, telephones and water fountains. Per state regulations, both have running water.

What about snacks?

Originally, the rest stop allowed for one food vendor, but a 1983 court order has essentially made it a free-for-all for peddlers of chips, sodas, sandwiches and other picnic fare.

Currently, there is no limit to the number of food vendors that can operate out of the rest area, and as many as 15 can be found at any one time, Nipper said. Legally, these vendors cannot charge for their food, but they can solicit donations. Critics say that system is not working or being enforced.

Who takes care of upkeep at Aliso Creek?

A cleaning company contracted by Caltrans is responsible for providing round-the-clock maintenance and simple repairs of the restrooms and surrounding areas only, Nipper said. Caltrans crews tend to the landscaping.

Cleaning and maintenance is funded by state taxes.

Where are the other rest areas?

There are 90 rest areas in California. State road maps list all the rest areas and their locations, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Some rest areas have more amenities than others, such as telephones and handicap access, but all must provide restrooms and running water.


The only other state-run rest area in San Diego County is the Buckman Springs stop on Interstate 8 in East County.

Do gas stations have to provide restrooms for motorists?

A 1984 article in the Business and Professions Code of California requires every service station in the state located within 660 feet of the accessible right of way of an interstate or primary freeway to provide restrooms to its customers during business hours. Whether you buy a pack of gum, gas up the car or have your engine overhauled, you are entitled to use their restrooms--at no charge.

Service stations are not legally obligated to provide a restroom to a non-customer, no matter how much you might squirm and plead. If you aren’t willing to buy the road map, the bag of chips from the vending machine or a penny’s worth of fuel, you will have to rely on the kindness of the gas station attendant.

What about just stopping on the freeway?

The CHP takes a pretty dim view of what they call “non-emergency stops.” You can argue that a full bladder is an emergency, but you will still be cited under sections of the California Vehicle Code and/or the California Penal Code.

The vehicle code addresses the hazards of making a non-emergency stop on a freeway ($72 fine for first offense); the penal code addresses indecent exposure (a misdemeanor that can carry a stiff fine).