We were on our way to the beach one summer Saturday, with beach chairs and body boards bouncing in the back of the van as we zipped down the Costa Mesa Freeway.
It was just about time for the first "Are we there yet?" when the brake lights lit up ahead. So we slowed down and slogged along for a mile or so, waiting to get past the wreck or the stall or the whatever it was this time.
It was a station wagon containing a woman with two children in car seats, stuck smack-dab in the center lane. Irate drivers on both sides glared at the woman as they passed, as if she had decided to stage the breakdown strictly to inconvenience them.
The road was starting to open up ahead, and by the time I got alongside the disabled car, I was itching to press the gas pedal and speed on. Then the woman whose car had quit on her managed to establish eye contact.
"Please," she shouted, leaning across the baby to hand me a piece of paper through the passenger window. "Would you call my husband for me?"
I took the paper, got off at the next exit and found a pay phone, all the while thinking, there's got to be a better way.
Now there is: The call box. High-tech, solar-powered cellular versions are springing up all along Orange County freeways. Think of them as car phones for the rest of us.
Orange County was the first in the state to take advantage of a recent state law that allows counties to build call-box systems financed by a $1-per-year assessment on each motor vehicle registration. Los Angeles County's call-box system was set up 20 years ago, financed by county funds.
Since installation began here last October, 683 boxes have been installed, with 350 more to go, according to Todd Murphy, project manager for the Orange County Transportation Commission, which is overseeing the installation. The boxes are on both sides of the freeway, one-quarter mile apart, covering all 137 miles of freeway.
The system will cost $4.9 million to install, and about $1 million a year to operate, Murphy said.
So far, installation has been completed on the Orange, Riverside, Garden Grove, San Diego and Laguna freeways. The Santa Ana Freeway system is about 40% complete, Murphy says, and the Costa Mesa and Corona del Mar freeways will be outfitted by mid-September.
"We're going to have a big blowout Sept. 16 to say we're done," Murphy says. Interesting choice of words. . . .
So how do you use these gizmos? The OCTC has put together a clear and simple bilingual brochure, available at your local public library or from the commission. And, frankly, if you can't follow these instructions, you should not be operating any kind of telephone, much less a car.
"Lift phone (levantar el telefono,) " the instructions begin. "Press red button (apretar el boton rojo). " In case you read neither English nor Spanish and have no idea how to use a telephone, the instructions also include illustrations. The little pictures are also on the call boxes themselves. Fortunately, the instructions are not written in Caltrans-ese, you know: "Exit must lane right."
The complicated part is getting from your car to the phone.
If you are stuck anywhere but the right lane, forget the call box. Just stay in your car. Say your mantra, cross your fingers or pray if that helps, but never get out and try to walk across the freeway. "The CHP will be along very soon," Murphy says, although it may seem like an eternity if you're the one who is waiting.
If you can, pull over as far as possible onto the right shoulder. Then get out the passenger side and take a look around. You want to find the nearest call box, but you don't want to cross an on-ramp or an off-ramp to get to it.
After you push the button, a CHP dispatcher will answer. If that doesn't happen right away, don't hang up and "dial" again. Call boxes are important, but the dispatcher may be busy with a more urgent problem. Just wait. Unlike some numbers for the CHP, call boxes do not provide music on hold. But you can hum or whistle. You just might not be able to hear yourself over the roar of passing traffic.
The dispatcher will answer, "Highway Patrol," which is unnerving to some stranded motorists. "I remember there was one who heard that and said to his companion, 'Do we want to talk to the Highway Patrol?' " said Lee Brooks, CHP dispatch supervisor.
If you are a member of an auto club, the dispatcher will arrange for a tow truck or other assistance from your club. If you aren't, you can still get help from a company that does business with the CHP. If your brother-in-law is good with cars and you would rather have him come to the rescue, the dispatcher will call him instead.
But what if you are late for a very important date?
"We allow two calls," Brooks says. "But a lot of people ask for more than the allotment."
"If it's an emergency, a dire emergency, the operator will make a call for you," Murphy says. "But this is not a message service." So if you are trying to be the 12th caller on a radio contest, forget it.