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Are Roadside Call Boxes Necessary or Outdated?

Evening Edition
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Dwane Brown reports on whether roadside call boxes are a necessary safety measure, or an outdated expense.

Aired 9/27/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Funding for roadside call boxes has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. Do you use a call box or has the availability of cellphones made them obsolete?


Lorie Zapf - San Diego City Council Member, District 6


When you need a freeway callbox, they are priceless.

Last night a woman used a call box to get help after she was kidnapped in Hillcrest and left on the side of the road. Her kidnapper stole her cellphone, making the call box the quickest way to contact authorities.

According to the Union Tribune, the creation of the call boxes was "spurred by the Jan. 21, 1985, sexual assault of a 27-year-old woman stranded on a busy stretch of Interstate 5 near downtown San Diego."

With the increased use of cellphones, however, call box usership has rapidly declined. In 1990, the yellow call boxes were used to make 170,511 calls. In 2010, that number was only 11,625.

At the same time, the cost of maintaining the boxes has nearly doubled.

Today on KPBS Midday Edition, San Diego City Council Member Lorie Zapf said she has reservations with the bureaucracy involved and the high costs associated with the call boxes. Zapf sits on the board that oversees the maintenance of the county's call boxes. KPBS Reporter Joanne Faryon will also interview Zapf on Evening Edition.

State Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher is preparing legislation that could potentially phase out the call boxes, and San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio has said that the call boxes are obsolete and should be eliminated.

Some citizens and politicians are asking: Should we be paying so much? Should we even be considering abandoning the freeway call box system entirely?

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Avatar for user 'dialyn'

dialyn | September 27, 2011 at 11:49 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

Probably they need to take a look at the costs and see if the program is being managed properly, but I was stuck on the freeway with a dead battery in my cell phone and I was very glad to have a call box handy. We make a huge mistake when we pretend everyone has a working phone with them at all times (and, no, I don't have a car that doubles as a phone booth--some of us aren't as rich as you all pretend we are). During emergencies, cell phones don't always work while land lines still do. I like having a backup, but I'm guessing I'll be in the minority about that.

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Avatar for user 'Len'

Len | September 27, 2011 at 2:29 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

You may or may not be in the minority, Dialyn. but you're not alone. There are many of us without cell phones . Moreover, cell phones don't always work, or may be in a "no signal" area. I think the call boxes are not only necessary, but Ms Plautz notes there are reserves to cover their operation for 15 years. What wasn't mentioned was the elephant in the room. The U-T reported that the executive director of SAFE directed the contract to his own company "T-cubed," without bids, and it's been renewed six times without bids. It smells rotten, and is another example of why San Diego has been described as the most corrupt U.S. city of its size. The same probably applies to the Berkman contract of $214,000 a year to "promote" 511. My friends and I have never heard of 511, so the promoting isn't all that good. As Ms Plautz said, a sticker for the dashboard or flyer with license renewals would do the job for relatively pennies.

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Avatar for user 'Pat Finn'

Pat Finn, KPBS Staff | September 27, 2011 at 3:05 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

During the Midday segment, Council member Lorie Zapf did bring up the fact that the contract awarded to T-Cubed was "no-bid," obviating our question on that issue. As for comments on 511 and the millions in reserve, I believe Council Member Zapf made those remarks, not KPBS web producer Jessica Plautz.

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Avatar for user 'Jessica Plautz'

Jessica Plautz | September 27, 2011 at 3:31 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

Hi Len,

As Midday producer Pat Finn mentioned, the remarks were from council member Lorie Zapf. I was not on air.

Thank you,

Jessica Plautz
KPBS Web Producer

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Avatar for user 'MiguelF'

MiguelF | September 27, 2011 at 7:02 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

The call boxes should be removed immediatly. How much more evidence is required to show this is not required. The auditing should have caught this years ago. Another example of the "fleecing of America". Auditing is obviously broken, I am wondering how many other of these types of obsolete services may still exist. Any monies in the "call box" account should be returned to the tax payers or return to the general fund of the cities involved in the county (call box account mgmt folks should simply work with DMV which collects the fee to determine where the monies originated from and reverse the charge. This is already a redundant service as well as obsolete. We also have the "free way patrol vehicles" that check for cars that are "stuck" on top of highway patrol and local police that also travel on freeways, which also check for stranded vehicles. I vote to donate my share to the elementary school district.

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Avatar for user 'SunshineMama'

SunshineMama | September 27, 2011 at 9:03 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

I was extremely thankful for the roadside call boxes when we moved here to San Diego County about two months ago. We drove across the country from Maine in a Subaru Outback, with our two kids, a couple of pets, and a U-Haul trailer. It was treacherous driving through many of the mountain passes, and in Arizona we actually ended up on the side of the road with a dry oil tank and no cell phone service. (We DID plan ahead and have a phone for the trip, but discovered that in many of the remote mountain areas, there was no service at all.) We were afraid of the same thing happening in the mountains between the Imperial Desert and San Diego County, and were extremely relieved to see the call boxes. In this kind of heat it really eased our minds to know that we could contact someone for help if necessary. And sure enough, we didn't have cell service through most of that mountain trek, although thankfully we didn't need to call for help that time.

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Avatar for user 'Len'

Len | September 28, 2011 at 1:47 p.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

Pat Flynn believes that noting the the contract was no-bid "obviat(ed) our question on that issue" As the U-T Watchdog made eminently clear, the issue is the the executive director of SAFE selected his own company as the contractor. That it was, and remained for six renewals, no-bid is a corollary to the enormous conflict of interest ignored by the Board. This another example of the producer and host of the show not being prepared and/or not understanding the subject. I think I recall a time when a representative of either Big Oil or Big Energy made outrageously false statements unchallenged by the host.
I apologize for using Ms Plautz's name when I meant Ms Zapf. My comments apply.
Miguel F---Call boxes were used 6000 times last year, which indicates a need. In the event of emergency, would you be content to wait until a CHP patrol came your way? Cell phones don't always work, don't work in some areas, and there are people who don't own one. I'm with you on the audits (?) and costs. I believe the councilwoman said there are sufficient reserves to fund call boxes for 15 years, without collecting more fees.. (Why are there such immense reserves?)
San Diego is a corrupt city, run by and for the benefit of the "In" group of developers and politicos, who, as one example, selected Sanders and financed his run for mayor. The Council is another wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ins. I think Donna Fry was the only member to object to the conflict of interest in awarding the contrast to T-cubed.

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Avatar for user 'PRProSanDiego'

PRProSanDiego | September 29, 2011 at 10:54 a.m. ― 5 years, 5 months ago

Dialyn and Len, I am in agreement with you. We need to maintain the call box system. We cannot leave behind those who do not have cellphones. My 76-year-old mother does not use a cellphone. As for the rest of us, cellphone batteries die, and cellphones are not infallible.

Miguel F., if your assertion would true I might think twice. However, I recall an incident as a 20-year-old SDSU student in the days before cellphones and callboxes. I sat on the freeway ramp from westbound I-8 to northbound I-805 in my car for four hours until 3 a.m. waiting for someone to stop and assist me. Several CHP vehicles drove past without bothering to check whether anyone was in the car. I recognized that in the dark, they didn't see me. I finally took off the white shirt I was wearing and tied it to the antenna of my car as a sort of "white flag." It worked - a half hour later when an office finally drove by, it caught his eye and stopped. My parents were frantic when I finally got home, as you can imagine.

I do agree the fees should be cut back, and we should not be paying for unrelated services. This is a bureaucracy that has spiraled out of control.

All due credit to reporter Dave Maass at San Diego City Beat for being the first person to look into the SAFE situation and report on it months ago.

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