SAN DIEGO - SANDAG began removing call boxes along urban highways throughout the San Diego region this month and will continue to do so through June, reflecting a decrease in call volume due to the increase in cell phone ownership.
“It’s a sign of the times,” said SANDAG Vice-Chair and Poway Mayor Steve Vaus. “Most people now own cell phones and don’t need a roadside call box in emergencies. The decrease in call volume proves that. It is time to reduce the cost of maintaining call boxes where cell phone signal strength is strong and dependable”
In October 2017, the SANDAG Board of Directors approved a plan to reduce the number of call boxes in the region from 1,259 to 379. The plan calls for removing all urban call boxes and one-third of rural call boxes. In the rural areas, the overall frequency of call boxes will be reduced, while retaining all call boxes in areas where cell phone signals are weak.
Call volume from call boxes reached a peak in 1993 at 140,000 calls annually, but has steadily declined since then, dropping to 11,000 calls in 2017 due to increased cell phone accessibility and in-vehicle services such as OnStar.
Roadside signs will be installed in place of some of the removed call boxes with a message to call 511 for roadside assistance.
Motorists can call 511 from a cell phone, say “Roadside Assistance,” and be connected to a live operator, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The call center can handle all languages through a translation service.
The SANDAG Freeway Service Patrol provides free roadside assistance during weekday rush hours (5:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.) on select highways throughout the San Diego region. Motorists in need of assistance outside of these hours will be assisted by call center staff and can be connected with other roadside assistance services.
The deployment of additional motorist aid services, including the SANDAG Freeway Service Patrol, the mobile 511 roadside assistance program, and Caltrans surveillance cameras have further reduced the demand for call boxes in urban areas throughout the San Diego region.
Call box programs in other regions throughout California have experienced similar declines in call volume.
The California call box system dates back to 1962, when the first solar-powered emergency call system was installed on ten miles of freeways in Los Angeles.
The San Diego regional call box program was introduced in 1985, funded by a one-dollar fee on vehicle registration throughout the region. SANDAG began administering the region’s call box program in 2013.
SANDAG, Caltrans, and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) work together to operate the publicly-funded motorist aid program throughout the San Diego region.