JULY 1, 2005
THIS is not PHONEY
Roadside call boxes, which stranded drivers can use to dial for help in emergencies, are flirting with extinction.
They are starting to fall victim to the easy availability of cell phones and the high costs of using and maintaining them.
Rhode Island, where the cost per call had risen to about $7,000, scrapped its 284 call boxes at the end of last year. "Most everybody has a cell phone," transportation spokeswoman Dana Nolfe says. "People who break down would rather just use their cell phone and not get out of the car."
Pennsylvania removed 102 boxes on Interstate 81 last year. "They were very expensive to maintain," says Steve Chizmar, a spokesman for that state's transportation department. "The cost to replace one box was $6,000. They just weren't reliable."
Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Louisiana are considering scrapping them because of the high costs. A call costs $77.61 on I-255 in Illinois.
When many call box systems were installed, cell phones were virtually unheard of. Today, there are more than 182 million wireless subscribers in the USA, according to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless telecommunications industry.
In addition, many states employ "smart traffic" systems with highway cameras and roving motorist assistance patrols that make the boxes obsolete.
"And it's sort of outdated technology," says Mark Lambert, spokesman for the Louisiana transportation department. "The manufacturers don't make parts anymore for some of these." Louisiana bought some of Minnesota's old boxes for spare parts when that state abandoned call boxes in 1996.
Transportation officials in some states say the boxes remain necessary. There are still 1,038 call boxes along 530 miles of toll roads in the Pennsylvania Turnpike system. "We have rural areas where we have concerns about cell phones," spokesman Carl DeFebo says. In 2004, 16,668 motorists used them, down from 39,000 calls in 2000. Other states have seen similar drops in use. But state officials say demand for the call boxes is sufficient to justify the expense. Florida, which pays maintenance costs of "several hundred thousand dollars a month" for 2,750 devices, saw the number of calls drop from 56,000 in 1999 to 27,000 in 2002, says Nick Adams, a state transportation official.
"A lot of people say, 'Everybody's got a cell phone,' " Adams says. "But actual cell phone saturation is between 45% and 50%. A large percentage of the people that don't have cell phones are the ones whose vehicles are likely to break down and need assistance. We have a lot of migrant workers and elderly using the highways." California has more than 15,000 call boxes funded by a $1 vehicle registration fee and operated by regional transportation districts, says David Anderson, spokesman for the state transportation department.
The state and several counties were sued in federal court last month by the California Association of the Deaf and four deaf individuals. The plaintiffs want the boxes made accessible to drivers who are deaf or hearing-impaired. "They can't use cell phones," says their attorney, Jennifer Pesek of the California Center for Law and the Deaf. "What some of them have is text pagers. But those can't connect to the emergency service system."
GOODNESS SNAKES ALIVE
At the first glance I thought
it was a log
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