State reaches out, hits 'disconnect' for emergency road phones


April 11, 1994

Whither the roadside emergency phone?

A Sundial caller suspects the good old emergency phone has gone the way of the dinosaur, at least on Baltimore's toll roads. He hears the state has removed them from Interstate 95 and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway, and he's none too happy about it.

The caller speculates that it was done because some phones don't work and the state fears lawsuits.

"I think they could put a disclaimer on the phone or something rather than have the motorists sitting out there hurting and getting wounded," he says.

Intrepid Commuter hates to think that violent criminals zero in on stranded motorists like vultures locating carrion. Frankly, we've been more concerned about the health risks posed by automobile mechanics. (Mechanic: "Your bill, sir." Intrepid: "AAAAAUURGGHHHH!")

Nevertheless, we made a priority telephone call to the folks at the Maryland Transportation Authority, the state agency responsible for the toll facilities, and they admit there's some truth to what the caller says.

Yes, there had been problems with phones in the past. But state officials argue that commuters are better off without the antiquated system.

Thomas Freburger, an authority spokesman, says the phones were removed from the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel Thruway (I-895) in 1991.

In January, emergency phones were taken from the I-95 approaches to the Fort McHenry Tunnel. I-95 beyond the Beltway was never equipped with emergency phones.

First installed on I-895 in the late 1950s, the phones were a safety feature. If stranded, a motorist could just lift the receiver and automatically be connected with a police dispatcher at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.

Unfortunately, Mr. Freburger says, the equipment had become obsolete in the age of cellular phones and was frequently vandalized. Underground wiring had deteriorated. Replacement parts had become difficult to find.

More important, the phones were putting people in danger by encouraging stranded motorists to walk along the highway to the nearest phone.

The phones were located one-half mile apart.

"The I-95 roadside is a very dangerous place for pedestrians," Mr. Freburger says. "It is safer for a motorist to stay in a vehicle and await assistance."

Police are supposed to patrol every section of the toll facilities every 15 to 20 minutes, Mr. Freburger notes. Maintenance and administrative vehicles are equipped with radios to report stranded travelers.

We encourage tunnel commuters to help each other. Motorists who spot disabled vehicles or other problems on I-95 or I-895 should contact police by dialing 911 or #77 on a cellular phone.

Incidentally, there are still some roadside emergency phones in Maryland. One place you can find them is alongside the Jones Falls Expressway.

Excellent letter from noted reader

Intrepid Commuter decided it's time to cash in.

What good is writing a column unless one can take full advantage of the situation? While bludgeoning government officials in print always makes for a good time, it's really twice as nice when we are the principal beneficiary of something the column accomplishes.

At least that was our reasoning when we decided to complain about Guilford Avenue and Monument Street, an intersection we encounter every week on our own commute to the offices of The Sun.

"Intrepid Commuter," we wrote. "why are right turns prohibited on red from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at this intersection?"

"Guilford is a one-way street and Monument dead-ends at Guilford so there is no conflicting traffic. Surely, this is some kind of mistake."

"P.S. Please let me know when this item appears so that I may purchase a copy of the newspaper. Also, try to spell our name correctly. Regards, Intrepid Commuter."

We passed along our extraordinarily well-written inquiry to the city's public works department. After a review, officials agreed to allow right turns during the weekend and to post a new sign indicating that the restriction is in effect on weekdays only.

Why only a partial victory?

Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the department, says a lot of pedestrians cross at that intersection in order to reach a parking lot underneath the Jones Falls Expressway.

"We can relax the restriction on weekends because pedestrian traffic from employers is considerably down on weekends," Mrs. Pyatt says.

She says it's not unusual to restrict right turns because of pedestrians. (However, we believe motorists who have no vehicular traffic to worry about should be capable of looking out for pedestrians).

The new sign should be posted by the end of the month.

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