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News Release

Bay Area's 511 Phone Service Adds Freeway Assistance Option

OAKLAND, CA — The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) — in partnership with Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol — has once again expanded the Bay Area’s award-winning 511 traveler information service by adding a feature that allows drivers to use their cell phones to summon non-emergency roadside assistance on any freeway in the nine-county region. Dubbed “511 Freeway Aid,” the new toll-free option combines the convenience of personal cell phones with the direct response of roadside call boxes.

Any motorist in a non-emergency situation (e.g., out of gas, flat tire or mechanical problems) can simply dial 5-1-1 on his or her cell phone. At the main menu, the caller need only say “Freeway Aid” and the voice-recognition system will transfer the call to the privately-operated call center that now handles incoming calls from the yellow roadside call boxes. The call center will then dispatch a tow truck, or forward information as needed to the CHP or Caltrans. The call-answering center will be able to locate callers by asking key questions.

“511 Freeway Aid is part of an ongoing effort to help manage Bay Area freeway operations more efficiently,” explained Albert Yee, MTC’s Director of Highway and Arterial Operations. “It links two important partnerships between MTC, Caltrans and the CHP: the 511 system and the Service Authority for Freeways and Expressways, or SAFE, which operates the fleet of Freeway Service Patrol tow trucks and the network of roadside call boxes.”

Yee noted that the 511 phone service receives some 450,000 calls each month while the Freeway Service Patrol last year responded to about 127,000 incidents in the nine Bay Area counties. The 2,200 Bay Area call boxes, which handled 18,000 calls a month as recently as 1996, generated about 21,000 calls in fiscal 2007-08. “511 Freeway Aid is a smart response to the continued growth in cell phone usage and the decline in call boxes,” he said.

FSP tow trucks — which provide their services free of charge — will be dispatched to respond to 511 Freeway Aid calls during peak periods on the Bay Area’s busiest routes. Towing companies that operate on rotations under contract with Caltrans and the CHP will be dispatched at other times, and will charge motorists for their services. If the caller’s location is on a toll bridge or in a tunnel, the information will be sent immediately to Caltrans and/or the CHP. Similar freeway assistance programs already are in place in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas. The Los Angeles service, which can be reached by dialing #-3-9-9, was launched in 2005 and has proven successful in reducing the number of non-emergency calls to the CHP.

Funding for the 511 Freeway Aid service comes from the $1 annual fee paid by drivers who register their vehicles in the nine Bay Area counties to finance the SAFE program.

The Bay Area is the largest metropolitan area in the country — and was the first in California — to activate a 511 system. The service generates more than 450,000 calls and about 2.5 million Web visits each month.

The California Highway Patrol is responsible for traffic safety and saving lives on the road. Caltrans owns and operates the state highway system. MTC is the transportation planning, financing and coordinating agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area.


John Goodwin, MTC: (415) 778-5262