Stalled cars and accidents invariably slow traffic on some of the county's busiest freeways every day, but portions of the Santa Ana and Costa Mesa freeways now under construction are particularly susceptible. Even a minor incident can grind traffic to a halt.
But under a program started by the state Department of Transportation, which sends tow trucks to patrol the areas to clear traffic problems as soon as they happen, the length of delays caused by traffic accidents and stalled vehicles in those areas has been cut in half.
Called "Orange Angels," two teams of tow trucks patrol each of the freeways from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. and offer free assistance to motorists with flat tires, no fuel and other problems. This month marks the second anniversary of the program, which Caltrans officials say has been a success.
"It's producing what we want. It's clearing the roadways," said Caltrans spokesman Ralph Blackburn. Since the program began in January, 1990, the trucks have offered service to almost 16,000 motorists, he said.
Currently, the areas patrolled include the Interstate 5 between Lake Forest and Grand Avenue, and the Costa Mesa Freeway between MacArthur Boulevard and 17th Street. Construction projects there had reduced or eliminated the shoulder areas and left motorists with no place to pull over in case of an emergency.
As construction moves northward, the patrols will change their service boundaries to focus on the problem areas. The program is scheduled to be discontinued when the construction projects are completed in about 10 years.
Without the service, which costs $385,000 a year, "the congestion would have been much greater than it is today. We've probably reduced the congestion from each incident by 50%," he said. On the average, problems are now cleared in five minutes instead of 10.
Feedback from the public has been overwhelmingly positive, and Caltrans has received dozens of letters praising the program.