Freeway Service Patrols: Out of Mind Until You Need Them

Freeway Service Patrol Tow Truck Driver provide roadside help.

When your car breaks down on the side of a hot, busy freeway, effective regional governance is probably the last thing on your mind.  You just want help—and soon!

Fortunately for residents in 25 of California’s most populated regions, a Freeway Service Patrol (Patrol) truck is probably less than 15 minutes away during peak rush hour travel times.  They are a service offered by regional transportation agencies as a strategy in keeping the roads safe—and even to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Patrols help stranded motorists and keep traffic moving safely.  They can provide stranded motorists a gallon of gas, water for the radiator, jump start a battery, repair a flat, or just wait with you until more help arrives.  If the issue cannot be fixed in ten minutes, they can tow a car to an arranged location.

Not all of their duties involve stranded motorists. Patrol drivers can also remove hazards and debris that can obstruct a land a pose a hazard.  Sometimes that involves the unexpected—one Bay Area driver has the distinction of saving a kitten from busy freeway traffic on three separate occasions.

You Can Call Them, But They May Find You First

The Patrol is a roving service.  Although stranded drivers may call 511, the drivers are already patrolling their “beats.” Patrol trucks are constantly looping through the service areas every 10 to 15 minutes during peak travel hours.

Sometimes their timing can seem miraculous. One driver who suffered a rush hour transmission failure noted, “I had not even completed my cell phone call to the Automobile Club when the FSP driver pulled up behind me.”

A Professional Service with a Personal Touch

The typical FSP fleet is composed of privately owned tow trucks under contract. Each driver must follow a strict code of conduct, wear a uniform, carry appropriate identification, and attend periodic meetings to get program and safety updates.

But the individual drivers often find the experience very satisfying. “The most rewarding part of this job is assisting people,” said David Camberos, who was earned Riverside County’s Top Driver Award in 2021. “Many times, they have children in the car and they’re panicking because they don’t know what to do. Getting them off the freeway or getting them on their way is the most rewarding part.”

And regional leaders seem equally pleased.  “Freeway Service Patrol drivers are heroes to stranded motorists,” said RCTC board member and Palm Desert Councilmember Jan Harnik. “Our drivers are quick to respond, friendly, and keep our roads safe. Each assist means the world to the motorists in need.” (Ms. Harnik is also a CALCOG board member.)

A State-Regional Partnership

There are 14 regional FSP programs across 25 counties that help an estimated 650,000 stranded motorists each year.  These programs are jointly operated between regional entities in cooperation with Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol.

The state agencies provide funding and supervision. For example, drivers must take Caltrans and CHP designated training programs. Then, CHP is responsible for their direct supervision and often work with the drivers out on the road. CHP and the local agency often meet frequently to make decisions involving day-to-day operation decisions.  Caltrans provides most of the funding. Caltrans’ is also responsible for state allocation invoicing and conducts special studies in support of local FSP programs.

The county transportation agency is responsible for contracting with tow service providers and with other consultants and contractors that may be necessary for the successful implementation of the project. They are also responsible for generating local matching funds, preparing annual program budgets, and coordinating service expansions and changes with partner agencies.

Funding Sources

The FSP Program is also collaboratively funded by federal, state, and local agencies. Traditionally, FSP programs received approximately $25 million in state funds allocated by Caltrans. But the program received a boost in 2017 with the passage of the Road Repair and Accountability Act (commonly referred to as SB 1) which allocated an additional $25 million through 2027.

State funds are suballocated to Regional FSPs under a formula that factors the volume of traffic, population density, and miles of freeway within the region. Local transportation agencies must then match the state allocation for the program with a minimum of 25% of local funds.

The local match is provided by the Service Authority for Freeways and Expressways (SAFE) program, which allocates $1 of vehicle registration fees to participating counties.

An Average Year in Numbers (in Los Angeles County)

•. Estimated of assists performed: 300,000
•  Motorist hours saved: 9.4 million
•  Fuel savings: 16.25 million gallons
•. Average FSP wait time: 7 minutes
•  Average AAA wait time: More than 30 minutes
•  Cost to benefit ratio: 1 to 13
•. Service Area: 475 miles
•. Trucks Operating at Rush Hour: 149

Source:  LA Metro

Benefits to the Broader Public

The most obvious public benefit of the FSP program is reduced traffic congestion and increased safety.  Minor incidents are responsible for more than half of all non-recurrent freeway congestion.  Areas that are congested experience a higher rate of accidents as motorists slow down, swerve, or change lanes too quickly.

Thus, clearing these incidents helps save lives by reducing accidents. Every dollar invested in these FSP programs yields at least five dollars in safety and congestion benefits.  The key to keeping the system moving safely and efficiently is rapidly clearing incidents and clearing obstructions as quickly as possible.

The reduced congestion also works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  A Caltrans-ITS study found that the increased investment from SB 1 into FSP programs reduced transportation emissions by 28 tons in the first year of implementation.

A Valued Service, Especially When Needed

The FSP program is a regional governance success story.  Perhaps the best way to conclude are with some testimonials (collected from SANDAG, edited for brevity, see originals):

  • “The FSP driver asked if I ran out of gas. His kind face immediately helped me know that it would be okay. He offered to put a gallon of gas in my car. He literally saved my life. I had no idea that the FSP program even existed.”
  • “My tire blew out. I pulled over to wait for my father when the Freeway Service Patrol came from nowhere. I could hear Enrique Iglesias [song] “Hero” in my head. My spare tire was deflated but he inflated it and put it on for me. Really nice guy, very fast work, professional and cared to make sure I was ok.
  • “I was a little concerned that a tow truck had pulled up behind me before I even had a chance to call one. [He] approached my car, immediately identified himself…and called the CHP. He then stood by my passenger door for close to an hour in the blazing hot afternoon sun until a flatbed truck arrived. This level of customer service is truly rare”
  • “My right rear tire went flat and who should appear? The SANDAG [FSP] truck. Boy, was it a welcome sight. In ten minutes he had the tire changed and I was on my way. My heroes! What a great public service – tax dollars well spent.”

More Information

Participating Regional Transportation Agencies (and FSP Links)