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TALES FROM THE FREEWAY

Close Calls : A Right and Wrong Way to Use Those Little Yellow Call Boxes

October 11, 1990|DAVID SHAUGHNESSY

The task seemed simple enough: Write about call boxes, those little yellow phone boxes on poles that you see on the side of the freeway.

I had driven by them on Interstate 5, Interstate 15 and California 78 for the last year without giving them a second thought.

No matter, I told myself. Soon I would unearth everything there was to know about them. Let others sift through the sands of the Persian Gulf Crisis, or go undercover to get a story on street gangs. The world of the freeway call boxes was mine.

I leaped into my car and took the College Avenue on-ramp in Oceanside, heading west on State 78. At 60 m.p.h.--make that 55--I groped under the seat for a pen and began scribbling in the margin of the sports page the mileage at each call box.

As I sped by the first one, the odometer read 123,457.9. Soon, another box whipped by. This time the gauge said 123,458.4. At the third, the odometer read 123,458.9. Ah ha. The boxes were exactly one-half mile apart. The thrill of discovery swelled within my heart.

Next, the pinnacle of my investigation: I would place a call from the freeway. I'd pull over and call home or maybe the office to check in. But wait . . . that would be too simple, too momentary. I needed time to savor the possibilities.

I decided that the deed would have to be done at night. Yes, to get the full measure of the experience it would have to be dark. The better to feel at least a touch of the fear and panic of the motorist stranded on the freeway. If the moon were full and there was a low, creeping mist, well, all the better.

That night I headed up the College Avenue on-ramp, westbound on State 78. My watch said 11:57 p.m. A call box loomed ahead, I pulled over to the shoulder.

I grabbed a flashlight and slid out the door of the car. Headlights flashed and cars and trucks whirred by in blinding gusts of malevolent energy. As I walked quickly toward the call box, the gravel beneath my feet felt like ball bearings. I slipped and nearly fell over the curb-like berm that separates the road from the weeds. Finally, I was face to face with Call Box No. 78-27.

Actually, I wasn't face to face with it quite yet. The yellow box hung on the other side of the pole. When I got on the other side and turned to face the box, I got my first good look at the oncoming traffic. My God, these people had to be going 200 miles an hour!

I felt like a trapped deer, frozen in the headlights of the oncoming traffic. With a steep hill directly behind me, there was nowhere to run and nothing but this skinny little pole between me and . . . the thought was too ghastly to bear. Concentrate on the yellow box I told myself.

The box opened from the left, like a bathroom medicine cabinet. There was a phone receiver, but no dial, nothing but the simplest of instructions and a big red button. I pushed it.

"Hello, this is the Highway Patrol," said a voice on the other end.

"Uh, hello," I said. "Can I call home?"

"What for?"

"Uh," I wondered what the penalty was for lying to the police, or if there was some sort of exemption for writers. "So someone can help me get my car started," I muttered.

"If you can drive your vehicle off the freeway you should do so, or I can get you a tow truck or roadside service," the voice replied.

"I'm pretty sure I can get my car to start, if not, I'll call back," I said hastily before hanging up.

What a fool I'd been.

You can't call home from a freeway call box, or anywhere else for that matter, except directly to the CHP. If call boxes could be used like a regular phone, real estate agents and salesmen would be jumping out of their cars every half-mile. Nobody would need a car phone.

There are 1,160 call boxes in San Diego County--438 of those in North County. Each box contains a solar-powered cellular phone unit.

Since the system went into operation in February of last year, it's been getting plenty of use. Along I-5, each phone is used 15 to 17 times a month; along I-15, each is used 15 times a month; and along State 78, which has fewer traffic lanes, each box is used five to six times a month.

Eighty percent of calls concern a disabled vehicle, with 4 out of 10 of those vehicles being out of gas. Six percent of the calls were to report accidents and another 4% dealt with hazards in the road. The remaining 10% of the calls fell into a miscellaneous category of what the CHP terms "inappropriate" calls, which presumably includes the late-night antics of misguided, would-be investigative reporters.

The $5.3-million system was installed and is maintained by the Anaheim-based Cellular Communications Corp. under the auspices of the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies. The phones are funded by a special $1 fee on annual vehicle registrations for San Diego County cars.

Does the system make the highway a safer place? "Absolutely," said CHP media information officer Phil Konstantin. "We've had people calling about abandoned vehicles in the traffic lanes, bodies on the freeway, people with heart attacks. It's been very helpful as far as public safety."

Of course I wasn't the only one who thought they could make like E.T. and phone home. CHP dispatchers often get calls from businessmen who want to return a call after their beepers have gone off. One woman asked the dispatcher to contact her husband and remind him to bring their dog inside the house since it was beginning to rain. Another caller wanted to remind a spouse at home to turn off the iron.

Recently, a dispatcher got a call from someone who had run out of fuel and wanted to call Saudi Arabia. The dispatcher remarked that that was a little far for someone to come and help. "I know," replied the caller. "But they're the ones with all the gas."

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