PA Turnpike Considers Removing Call Boxes

Jun 24, 2015

Emergency call boxes could be on the chopping block if a house bill finds favor this term.
Credit WestPA31 / Flickr

  The nearly 1,000 bright yellow emergency call boxes along the Pennsylvania Turnpike could disappear soon, thanks to the prodigious growth of cell phones and House Bill 1335.

State Rep. John Lawrence’s (R-Chester) bill would amend state law, which currently requires the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to provide and maintain emergency call boxes for turnpike drivers. The amendment, if passed, would eliminate this requirement.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the call boxes were used more than 18,000 times in 2000. By 2014, that number had dropped to 1,200.

“We’ve been looking at this every year, and it just seems like as they decrease ... there seems to be some support in the legislature for this idea," he said. "It seems like the time is now.”

First launched in the 1980s, call boxes were the preferred way for stranded motorists to request emergency assistance before the prevalence of cell phones. The call boxes don’t offer two-way communication; instead, there are four buttons for motorists to choose from -- accident, medical, police and service -- that send a signal to the turnpike’s operations center in Harrisburg. From there, authorities dispatch appropriate help to the call box signaling distress. 

Though once a popular system, they've become underused and outdated, DeFabo said.

Maintenance costs range from $200,000 to $250,000 per year, or about $160 to $210 per call last year. DeFebo said the commission has considered phasing out the program altogether, if allowed.

Florida recently removed its call box system without issue, because officials reached out to drivers and made it clear that they were eliminating the boxes, DeFabo said. The turnpike commission would do the same, he said.

Other alternatives could be presented to and voted on by the commissioners, but DeFebo called the eventual fate for call boxes "predictable."

“I think a phase-out is likely inevitable,” he said. “However, I think we can still provide the level of response and service that our customers have come to expect without them.”

But what about the 1,200 motorists who used the boxes last year?

DeFebo said new technology like video cameras, traffic flow detectors and increased patrol vehicles would have more room to expand as call boxes phase out. Cell reception improves every year, he said, and would be the most reliable way to seek assistance with the turnpike’s *11 emergency hotline.