A rubbernecking driver on the southbound San Diego Freeway in Irvine slammed on the brakes and, tires smoking, nearly plowed into the car ahead.
Off to the side, about 30 reporters, photographers and dignitaries in orange safety vests and white helmets huddled around a bright yellow box perched on a metal pole.
"This is as important as the first step for mankind. However, it's a lot cheaper," Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder said as she swung open the door of the yellow box and lifted out a black telephone receiver.
Grasping the instrument tightly, Wieder pushed a small red button on a panel inside the box, setting off an automatic dialing sequence.
"Hello, hello," Wieder said. "Hello?"
For about 10 seconds, there was nothing but the din of swooshing cars and rumbling trucks.
Suddenly, from eight miles away at the California Highway Patrol office in Santa Ana, CHP dispatcher Margaret Davidson's voice was heard: "Hello."
Wieder: "This is the first call for safety on Orange County freeways."
Amid much hoopla, Orange County's freeway emergency call-box system, the second of its kind in the state, was inaugurated Thursday morning in Irvine.
Well, sort of.
Actually, the first call box, located a few yards north of the Yale Avenue pedestrian over-crossing, was scheduled to come down immediately because its metal support has not been certified as crash safe by the CHP and the state Department of Transportation.
The metal pole used for Thursday's demonstration is too costly anyway, county officials said, and wood and fiberglass models are being considered.
Installation of permanent call boxes is scheduled to start along the San Diego Freeway in south Orange County in September.
The CHP is hiring four new telephone operators to handle the 10,000 calls a month expected to pour in from the boxes. And the CHP will be installing a new, computerized telephone switching and dispatch system. The county Transportation Commission, which doubles as the county's Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies, is splitting the additional costs with the CHP.
At first, call boxes will be spaced at half-mile intervals along the county's 137-mile freeway system, and at quarter-mile intervals later, like the 3,500 call boxes installed 10 years ago in Los Angeles County.
To pay for the system, the Department of Motor Vehicles returns $1 to emergency authority from each Orange County resident's vehicle registration fee.