Age, vandals and errant drivers have taken a heavy toll of Los Angeles' freeway call boxes, to the point that some of the 29-year-old roadside telephones don't work--a sad surprise for panicked motorists trying to report an accident, a flat tire or a premature baby.
That is about to change. Gradually--starting next month at the rate of about 50 a week--the old-fashioned call boxes that predate many of the drivers who use them will be replaced by new boxes packed with modern technology and powered by solar energy.
Heavy-duty handsets linked by regular phone lines to a California Highway Patrol dispatcher are on the way out. The new generation of boxes, installed by GTE Mobile Cellular at a cost of $15.3 million, will have solar-electric cells on top, cellular telephones inside, and new features all around.
Designed to muffle traffic noise, the new boxes will come with volume controls for people who are hard of hearing and an automatic locater system that will show dispatchers where every call originates, even if a caller is unable to speak. The boxes will electronically alert repair crews if the phones are broken, vandalized, run over or stolen.
"It's like a little computer," said Susan Youngs of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, which operates the program. "It can detect when a wire is loose, the door is left open, the phone is left off the hook or the pole is tilted, and send a message asking somebody to check it out."
With 400 boxes to be added to the 3,842 already in place every quarter-mile or so along the county's 600 miles of freeway, the CHP expects that the new system will easily be able to cope with the daily flow of 2,500 to 4,000 calls.
The volume is growing rapidly. As recently as 1985, the Highway Patrol handled 25,000 calls a month from roadside phones. Now it handles 25,000 calls a month just from people dialing 911 on their car phones. Call boxes add another 70,000 or so calls each month.
Some of the calls are amusing, said Highway Patrol Lt. Bill Pasley. There was the driver of a disabled Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus truck who called to ask what to do with his elephants, and the private pilot who made an emergency landing on a freeway and used a call box to request a tow.
Others are deadly serious. Pasley said operators have taken calls from motorists witnessing shootings or being threatened by attackers. Police, medical or fire units must be dispatched to about one-fourth of the calls, he said.
"We've had rapes, murders, everything handled on those phones," he said. Since some women were raped after ordering tow trucks from boxes, lone women are asked to lock themselves in their cars and wait for Highway Patrol officers, who are routinely dispatched to assist.
Los Angeles' call box network, initiated by Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, was installed in 1962. It let drivers report accidents and mechanical problems and summon help without risking injury by walking long distances next to traffic.
Recently, that system has been supplemented by the Freeway Service Patrol, squadrons of tow trucks that roam the roads, dispensing free gasoline, simple repairs and short tows in response to calls made from the emergency phones. Transportation officials said the patrol has halved the time spent waiting for help.
Together, the new call boxes and service patrol are seen by county transportation officials not only as a means to assist distressed drivers, but also to reduce congestion by clearing up incidents quickly.
Money for these new call boxes--which already are being installed in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and eventually will be added to other state highways around California --comes from a $1 surcharge added to annual vehicle registration fees since 1988.
Operating the system, including the cost of CHP dispatchers, will cost more than $6 million annually. But county analysts estimate that the rugged solar-powered cellular call boxes should save $500,000 a year over the existing "hard-wired" system.
Robert D. Cashin of the Transportation Commission said the new call boxes also will be harder for vandals--or angry motorists--to damage, and less attractive for thieves to steal.
"You can't pull the receiver off and you can't break the box--it's made of Lexan, a Space Age plastic," he said. "The (Lexan) box also has no salvage value, unlike the (aluminum or cast-iron) boxes that are out there now."
Strength is a critical attribute for call boxes, Pasley said, because some drivers get very angry when a flat tire, a fire or other problems interferes with their commute.
"The angriest guy I ever heard was this motorcycle rider on the 91 Freeway," Pasley said. "He was just sputtering mad. He called to complain that he was following this motor home--and they had just flushed the toilet without having closed the (drain) valve. I never heard anyone so mad, but he was one of the few people we couldn't help."