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Efficiency of Call Boxes Gives Them Positive Ring : Communications: Five years after the service was introduced on the county's freeways, the phones have helped more than 655,000 drivers in trouble.


This fall marks the five-year anniversary of the arrival of call boxes on Orange County freeways, and the results show they have rescued more than 655,000 drivers from both irritating inconveniences and possible tragedy.

Most of the callers have reported flat tires, overheated engines or empty gas tanks, said Todd Murphy, manager of motorists' services for the Orange County Transportation Authority. But nearly 60,000 people have turned to the phones for help during emergencies, he said.

"It's been a very successful service," Murphy said. "We've had nothing but positive comments all throughout the five years. We get a lot of letters and comments from people saying, 'Hey, thanks, it's really been a lifesaver.' "

A preponderance of calls, Murphy said, comes from the El Toro Y and near the confluence of the Garden Grove and San Diego freeways and the juncture of the San Diego and San Gabriel River freeways--areas that are particularly congested.

According to statistics accumulated since 1987, 68% of calls made were from drivers seeking aid for car trouble or flat tires. Emergencies accounted for 9% of the calls, while another 9% or so were reports of road hazards.

"It's helped to cut down on congestion because people get help faster now," Murphy said. "If someone has a true emergency, they get help more quickly whereas before, it would take a good Samaritan or officer to come by. Now, people have immediate access to assistance."

Drivers merely push a button on the cellular telephone, which automatically dials a California Highway Patrol operator in Santa Ana.

While the call boxes are a welcome sight to most motorists, they are sometimes the targets of graffiti artists and vandals. In addition, about 100 call boxes are accidentally knocked down by drivers every month.

"They are on breakaway poles, so there's a real strong safety factor there," Murphy said. "If they are struck, they break away and fly over a car."

Last August, a call box was the target of a unique type of abuse when someone made 11,733 telephone calls billed to a single call box. A computer that monitors the county's emergency calls attributed 25,875 minutes of calls to the mysterious caller who telephoned people in countries around the globe.

After an investigation by OCTA, it was discovered that the hacker apparently matched the individual electronic serial number for the call box to its telephone number. It is the only incident of its kind to occur during the program's five-year history, officials said.

The 1,150 call boxes are located every quarter of a mile on all freeways in Orange County except those under construction.

They have also been placed at irregular intervals on Ortega Highway and Carbon Canyon Road and some are scheduled to be placed along Laguna Canyon Road soon.

The call box system costs about $1.4 million to operate each year and is financed through $1 surcharges on vehicle registration fees, Murphy said.

Call Box Use Since the first call box was installed in Orange County five years ago, the California Highway Patrol has received more than 655,000 calls from stranded motorists. Flat tires, out of gas, etc.: 68% Crashes involving injuries: 9% Road hazards: 9% Other: 14% Source: Orange County Transportation Authority

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