Zayda Gutierrez had dropped her husband off at work and was heading home to Downey in the carpool lane of the 91 Freeway in Fullerton on a recent Friday morning when a blowout forced her to the side of the road.
"All of a sudden the car started swaying badly," said Gutierrez, 29, who feared for the safety of her two children, Jazmine, 8 months, and Johnny, 19 months, both strapped into car seats in the back seat.
She braked hard and maneuvered her late-model Chevrolet out of the carpool lane to a shoulder, where she stopped and assessed her predicament: no cellphone, cars whisking by at 70 mph, fidgety children, her only cash a dollar and a spare tire that was nearly bald.
Within minutes, a call crackled over Nick Ross' tow truck radio: "138502, woman with flat tire on carpool transition off 91 Freeway," said a CHP dispatcher who was alerted to the danger by a motorist. Ross sped to the location, joined a second tow truck already there and, with the help of a California Highway Patrol officer, drove to a spot where he could safely help Gutierrez.
Within seven minutes, the two truck drivers had jacked up Gutierrez's car and changed its tire. In another 10 minutes they had hoisted her car onto Ross' truck to be towed.
For Ross, 27, who drives for Hadley Towing in Whittier, it was just another day of dealing with the morning commute. His truck is one of 35 constituting the fleet of tow trucks patrolling Orange County's freeways offering free service to disabled vehicles.
For 14 years, the freeway service patrol administered by the Orange County Transportation Authority has been servicing 197 miles of county highways. In that time, program administrators say, they have rescued nearly 900,000 stranded motorists free of charge. Local transportation officials say the service is an effective tool in combating gridlock and air pollution. Last week, the OCTA board approved expanding the program to weekends on Interstate 5 in southern Orange County.
L.A. County has a similar towing program.
The patrol typically clears stalled cars from freeways in about 10 minutes -- a third of the time that was required before the patrol was created. The wait is longer when stalled motorists rely on the Automobile Club of Southern California or CHP alone to come to their aid, said Iain C. Fairweather, OCTA's manager of motorist services.
The program, operated with the help of Caltrans and the CHP, eliminates delays that would otherwise keep drivers on the road for an extra 6 million hours a year, its administrators say, thus saving an estimated $54 million in lost wages, sales and productivity costs. By contracting with various tow-truck operators, they say, the patrol runs on about $4.5 million a year, 75% of it from state vehicle license and registration fees and the remainder from Measure M, a half-cent-on-the-dollar Orange County sales tax.
During a recent debate among OCTA board members, newly elected Supervisor John Moorlach, who is also a trustee, questioned the value of the program at a time when many motorists, like him, join the Automobile Club, which provides tows.
But the program's goal is not to help drivers who forget to fill their gas tanks or simply want someone to change a tire, Fairweather said. The bottom line, he said, is to keep traffic flowing. "Our target," he said, "is the person behind the driver who is stalled. Yes, we'll help the [stalled] driver, but we want to help the guy three to four cars behind so they can get to work on time."
CHP Officer Kari Keul, who oversees the tow truck program for that agency, said that "congestion relief is the key."
Somebody changing a tire on the shoulder can reduce traffic flow by 10% just because of gawkers, Keul said. Quickly getting such a driver moving on the freeway is key to the program, and "not everyone can afford" the Automobile Club, she added.
The program may seem expensive but it serves an important function, Keul said. Motorists sometimes sue the state and road agencies if struck by vehicles while disabled. "In that case," she said, "the cost of fighting the lawsuit is greater than having a truck coming and moving a person to a safe area."
Thirteen California counties operate free highway service patrols. Los Angeles County runs the largest fleet, with 150 tow trucks operating seven days a week. Trucks run from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekends. The annual cost is $20.5 million, said an L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman.
By contrast, Orange County patrols its highways Monday through Friday during commute hours: 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. The free service offers distressed motorists gas, water and jump-starts or tows off the freeway.
That help recently proved invaluable to Anaheim resident Arsula Webb, 30, after a broken rear door prevented her from retrieving a spare tire to fix a flat on her Astro van. "I've never heard of the program before," Webb said. "But they were very fast and very helpful."
Gutierrez was thankful too. The day she broke down, a CHP officer put her and the children in a patrol car that followed Ross' tow truck to the safety of a nearby surface street.
Still trembling from the ordeal, the young mother borrowed a cellphone to call her husband for help while the officer assisted with the children. "I can't say enough about these people," she said. "I just love them and what they did for me today."