New efforts are underway to enhance free roadside services for motorists who need assistance on San Diego County freeways.
San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is making improvements to the 511 Freeway Service Patrol (FSP) program.
During the weekday morning and evening commutes, 23 tow truck operators drive up and down San Diego County freeways, actively looking for stranded drivers.
"In most cases, the tow trucks arrive within 10 minutes of the vehicle being stranded or disabled on the side of the highway," said Ray Traynor, Director of Operations for SANDAG.
The assistance from FSP is free. All you need to do is call 511.
The program's goal is not only to help disabled motorists and get them off the freeway and into a safe area, but also, to keep the freeways clear for drivers.
Tow truck drivers contracted with the 511 FSP program can change a flat tire, jump start a car, give drivers a gallon of gas, and even tow a car to a designated safe zone.
However, the drivers cannot repair vehicles on the side of the road, or accept tips or any kind of gratuities.
"Usually 90 percent, they're so grateful," said Alonso Perez, a tow truck driver for Coastal Pride Towing, which contracts for the Freeway Service Patrol. "I've been offered up to $100 in a tip, and of course we refuse."
"Some want to give us water, candy, cookies," added Perez, who's also had to refuse gift cards from grateful drivers.
SANDAG has plans to make FSP even more efficient.
"In January, we're going to be rolling out a new automatic fleet management system," said Traynor. "Each of the tow trucks will be equipped with a mobile data terminal, and that'll provide a direct connection to the officers that are involved in managing and overseeing the program.
Traynor said the new system aims to improve response times from the goal of 10 minutes to less than nine minutes.
The tow truck drivers are assigned to drive through San Diego's most congested freeways. They're divided into 13 areas, based on high traffic volume and accident rates compiled by SANDAG, CHP, and CalTrans.
Emergency calls are dispatched through the Traffic Management Center for CalTrans and CHP in Kearny Mesa.
CHP Officer Millan Mateo, who oversees the daily operations of FSP, said all tow truck drivers go through a background check. They also wear a marked safety vest and drive a vehicle with the 511 Freeway Service Patrol and SANDAG logos.
"We make sure that the standards of the freeway patrol are not only regulated and mandated by the vehicle code and state law but also that they're doing their job," said Mateo.
Mateo also said tow truck drivers can sometimes get to a disabled vehicle more quickly than CHP officers, because the officers may be tied up on another incident.
"Sometimes there are actually more Freeway Service Patrol trucks than officers on a single freeway because the freeways are split up into certain segments," Mateo explained.
SANDAG launched FSP in 1993, but most people still don't know it exists.
Traynor said SANDAG conducted a telephone survey in 2015 and found only 30 percent of the people they surveyed were familiar with 511.
The system was started in San Diego in 2007.
This fall, SANDAG is launching a big marketing and outreach campaign, to bring more awareness to the free services 511 offers.
In the 2016 - 2017 fiscal year, the FSP program assisted about 90,000 motorists in San Diego County. It is funded through the state transportation fund and SANDAG funds.
The 511 Freeway Service Patrol is active from 5:30 a.m. - 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. weekdays.