The first of 329 solar-powered call boxes designed to help stranded motorists will be installed in Ventura County on Friday.
County officials expect to have the entire system in place by January, with yellow boxes set at half-mile intervals on both sides of sections of highways 1, 101, 126, 118, 23 and 33.
The boxes will be placed to ensure that motorists in the most heavily traveled stretches of state road are never farther than one-quarter mile away from direct communication with the California Highway Patrol, officials said this week.
Each call box will be placed in the middle of a 12-foot-high pole, on top of which will perch a black, shingle-like solar panel and an antenna that transmits telephone radio signals.
The panel will collect solar energy and store it in a battery. Costs to dig trenches around the highway system and lay traditional telephone cables would be exorbitant, said Lynne Roberts, program manager for call-box operators for the CHP.
Motorists using the phones will not have to dial. One push of a button will show CHP dispatchers where the call is coming from. Callers then will talk to the dispatchers and ask for assistance from patrolmen, ambulances, tow trucks and other emergency help.
In addition, drivers will be able to alert authorities when they see drunken drivers, highway accidents or toxic spills.
About 90% of the calls received in other counties that have such systems are reports of disabled vehicles, Roberts said.
"Help will be at their fingertips, literally," said Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria). "It is one of the most significant accomplishments in my legislative career."
O'Connell authored legislation in 1985 that provided $1 million for installation of the system.
The legislation guaranteed that Ventura County would receive more funds than other counties from an agreement requiring the federal government to give a share of proceeds from offshore oil drilling leases to the state of California. O'Connell argued that Ventura County deserves the extra funds because it bears the brunt of ill effects from offshore oil drilling.
Even so, drivers in Ventura County will have to help finance the system by paying an extra dollar to register their cars each year.
The fee will be in place until officials have a chance to work with the system and find out how much it costs, said Al Knuth, county deputy director of public works.
Upkeep costs may be higher than originally expected, Knuth said.
Accidents in Orange County, which has a similar system, knock down call boxes at the rate of two per month, Knuth said.
Ventura County is one of the few counties in the state to obtain call boxes. Los Angeles has had a call box system since 1963. Orange County's solar call box system has been in place a little more than a year, and San Diego completed installation of call boxes last year.
The system will cover all of Highway 101 from the Santa Barbara County line to the Los Angeles County line, said Bob Randall, project engineer for the county.
However, on Highway 1, the system will begin at Five Points in Oxnard and end near Point Mugu.
On Highway 118, call boxes will begin at the Los Angeles County line and end near Moorpark College.
On Highway 126, the system will begin at the intersection of Highway 101 and end just east of Santa Paula.
On Highway 23, it will run from the intersection of Highway 101 to just east of Moorpark.
On Highway 33, it will extend from the intersection of Highway 101 to a point just south of Casitas Springs.
The ground-breaking ceremony for the first box is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m. at the La Conchita exit off U.S. 101 north of Ventura.