Have you ever noticed the yellow call boxes lining Highway 101 every few miles through Sonoma County? Have you ever used one to call for help in an emergency? Chances are you haven’t.
The prevalence of cell phones has made the call box network virtually obsolete, and the technology is going the way of the CD player, the VCR and the pager. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission this week announced a three-month project to remove 500 call boxes along Bay Area highway roadsides and replace them with white-on-blue signs advising motorists who need assistance to call 511.
The move is the latest in a series of removals that have reduced the size of the call box network from 3,500 units in the early 2000’s to 2,200 today. The number of assistance calls generated by the call box network has plunged to 15,000 per year from a high of 98,000 per year in 2001, the MTC said.
“With the change in the way people communicate, we expect the call box network to shrink to about 1,000 units over the next few years,” MTC project manager Jaime Maldonado said. “Eventually, we may move away from call boxes altogether, and use the savings to enhance other highway operations systems such as establishing communication protocols with vehicle telematics, or expanding the use of closed-circuit TV and other technologies to improve incident detection and response.”
The MTC expects to retain call boxes for at least the next several years on Bay Area toll bridges, in highway tunnels, and in rural areas with poor cell phone coverage. Contractors this week began removing some call boxes along Highway 101 between Petaluma and Cotati.
Motorists who need assistance in non-emergency situations can use cell phones to access the same dispatch call center to which the call boxes are connected. Call 511 and say “Freeway Assist” or “Freeway Aid” at the first prompt. The 511 system will connect callers with an operator who will determine the motorist’s location, and provide appropriate roadside assistance service.