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As cellphone popularity soars, Riverside County votes to remove highway call boxes

Transportation officials voted today to remove 36 percent of remaining call boxes along Riverside County highways and set the stage for eliminating the system entirely by 2024.
The proposal passed with a 22-6 vote Wednesday, March 13, by the Riverside County Transportation Commission. It follows the retirement of hundreds of call boxes in late 2016 and mirrors a trend occurring throughout Southern California.
San Bernardino County officials recently voted to eliminate 225 call boxes from their roads and Los Angeles County officials are expected to consider taking some out of service this summer. An Orange County board likely will review call boxes in 2020.
A call box is set against the backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains along Highway 62 in the Riverside County desert. The Riverside County Transportation Commission is scheduled to consider on Wednesday, March 13 reducing the number of call boxes on county highways from 233 to 150. Usage continues to drop in the wake of growing cellphone use. (Photo courtesy of Riverside County Transportation Commission)
A truck cruises past a call box on the 15 Freeway in Riverside County. The Riverside County Transportation Commission is scheduled to consider on Wednesday, March 13 reducing the number of call boxes on county highways from 233 to 150. Usage continues to drop in the wake of growing cellphone use. (Photo courtesy of Riverside County Transportation Commission)
Sound The gallery will resume in seconds A highway call box is shown close up in a file photo. (File photo by William Wilson Lewis III, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
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The reason is the same everywhere: Because of the overwhelming popularity of the cellphone — ownership exceeds 90 percent — the  majority of calls for help from stranded drivers are made from mobile devices.
“Everybody’s got cellphones now,” said Rick Jager, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Call boxes are mounted on poles that are 14 feet tall. Yellow boxes like the ones we have today were introduced in the 1980s and early 1990s across Southern California and droves of distressed drivers sought them out when they broke down on the freeway. But calls have plummeted recently.
In Los Angeles County, for example, more than 1 million calls for aid were placed from call boxes in 1988, when the L.A.-area had 4,500 highway phones, Jager said. Fast forward to today and the number of call boxes stands at 576. And just 4,669 calls were made from those boxes in 2018, he said.
“Over the years we have been constantly reducing them because, quite frankly, people just aren’t using them,” Jager said.
Call volume continues to decline in Riverside County, too. After peaking at more than 88,000 calls per year in the mid-1990s, Riverside County calls totaled 1,864 last year — just 8 calls per call box, according to a staff report.
That’s why transportation commissioners may vote to trim the number of call boxes from 233 to 150, at a time when they are facing the need to upgrade technology to keep them operating. The decision closely follows a reduction from 681 call boxes just two years ago . At its peak, Riverside County’s system had 1,082 call boxes.
Annual call volume in Orange County plunged from 62,126 at the turn of the century to 1,246 last year, Eric Carpenter, a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, wrote in an email. Kelly Lynn, chief of mobility services for the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, said call box calls reached 142,000 there in 1994 and now runs at about 6,500 per year.
While a small fraction of original call boxes remain in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, San Bernardino still has most of the 1,690 highway phones it had in the late 1990s — or 1,020, Lynn said.
“The difference is, our county is a bit unique,” she said. “That’s why our usage is a bit higher than in some of our neighboring counties.”
Lynn noted that San Bernardino, which sprawls across 20,000 square miles, is the nation’s largest county geographically. The county is home to long stretches of the 15 and 40 freeways that ferry millions of Southern California travelers to Arizona and Nevada, not to mention lonely, remote desert roads.
Lynn said large swaths of the county are rural, and in many places cell service is spotty or nonexistent. Consequently, she said, call boxes are necessary so motorists can reach authorities in an emergency.
With those factors in mind, she said, the recent decision to further trim call boxes by 225 to about 800 countywide will mostly target phones in the populated corridor between Montclair and Yucaipa.
In Riverside County, the plan also is to focus call box removal in urban areas, while pulling out some phones in remote areas that are rarely used.
Riverside County may get rid of all its call boxes by 2024 if commissioners agree to the staff’s recommendation to set a sunset date.
“I think everybody accepts that the end is coming,” Standiford said.

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The question, he said, is when should that day come.
“On the other hand, it can be an important lifeline, too,” Standiford said, adding that officials don’t want to remove every call box if some are still helping people in emergencies.
Peak number of call boxes: Riverside County, 1,082; San Bernardino County, 1,690; Los Angeles County, 4,500; Orange County, 1,200
Call boxes today: Riverside County, 233; San Bernardino County, 1,020; Los Angeles County, 576; Orange County, 407
Peak number of annual call box calls: Riverside County, 88,288; San Bernardino County, 142,000; Los Angeles County, 1 million; Orange County, 62,126
Number of calls last year: Riverside County, 1,864; San Bernardino County, 6,500; Los Angeles County, 4,669; Orange County, 1,246

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