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Tuesday, April 9, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘We’re going to get you out of here’: Government-funded Freeway Service Patrol gets broken-down vehicles out of harm’s way

In its more than 30-year existence, Sacramento’s FSP has removed 850,000 stranded motorists from roadways, keeping other drivers safer in the process. Many local residents are unaware the program exists — but for tow-truck drivers like Dave Miller, it’s nonetheless a rewarding job.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Sometimes a vehicle stranded on the side of the road has serious mechanical issues. 

Other times it just needs a little gas.

Dave Miller, a supervisor and driver for Sacramento's Freeway Service Patrol, has seen it plenty of times. A driver is stopped on the shoulder of the highway. They don’t think their tank is empty, but Miller adds a bit of fuel and it starts.

The issues that leave Sacramento-area drivers stranded can vary. Sometimes it’s a bad battery. Once, someone saw a spider crawling across their dashboard and stopped in the middle lane.

And then, of course, there are the cars requiring bigger fixes. “We see a little bit of everything out there,” Miller said in a phone interview earlier this year.

Miller has been driving for the Freeway Service Patrol since around 2009. A city-based program, the FSP exists to remove stalled and broken-down vehicles from the highway, getting drivers the help they need while making the roads safer in the process.

One of 16 such programs in California, Sacramento’s FSP started in 1992 with four trucks. Today, it has a fleet of 20 vehicles and a $3.9 million annual budget. Its tow truck drivers patrol beats along the major highways and interstates in the Sacramento area.

Despite being in operation for more than three decades, FSP still operates mostly under the radar. Many people don’t know it exists at all, said Jennifer Doll, an official with the Sacramento Transportation Authority.

According to a survey of assisted drivers last year, a whopping 70% didn’t know about the FSP program until a tow truck arrived to help them. Only 30% of people had heard of FSP, including eight percent who had been helped before.

And yet, for assisted drivers, the program can be a lifeline. In 31 years, FSP has helped around 850,000 stranded motorists get off the road.

“We’ve been called ‘freeway angels,’” Miller said.

Sacramento's iconic Tower Bridge, which spans the Sacramento River and connects California's capital with West Sac and Yolo County. (William Dotinga/Courthouse News)

The highways that feed into Sacramento resemble those of any large city. Rush hour brings vehicles to a halt. Wrecks, a common occurrence, further complicate the drive to work and home.

Within FSP, the region’s roadways are divided into eight zones. Drivers operate “continuously” during rush hours in the morning (6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.) and the afternoon (2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.), said Doll, the STA official. 

The program strives to have drivers spot stopped vehicles within 10 minutes of a breakdown. After that, FSP workers can connect drivers to help, including through private providers. 

“They call AAA or their motor club,” Doll said.

Doll said people consider FSP a "people-helping" and "feel-good" program. While it is those things, its main goal is to keep roadways safe. When a car is stopped on the road, other drivers slow down, impeding traffic and possibly leading to new accidents, Doll said. Drivers also tend to focus their attention on a stalled vehicle, which also could lead to another wreck.

FSP drivers are contracted through local towing companies. After a tow company agrees to provide the service, the California Highway Patrol must approve the drivers, who receive training and certification.

But while FSP drivers aren’t public employees, they nonetheless work closely with authorities like California Highway Patrol, said Tami Grimes, a spokesperson for the agency. CHP oversees drivers during shifts, while drivers in turn update the agency on possible incidents and real-time road conditions.

Just as not all emergencies require a police officer, not all stalled drivers need a highway patrol person. FSP drivers help clear minor accidents, allowing CHP to focus on more serious matters, Grimes said. A flat tire, for example, doesn’t require a CHP officer on the scene, while a vehicle blocking several lanes of traffic might require one to prevent the situation from escalating.

FSP vehicles are labeled as “Freeway Service Patrol,” and drivers wear vests identifying themselves as being with the program.

Some drivers need assurances that the tow truck which has just arrived unannounced, and will tow their vehicle for free, is part of a real program. Tow-truck drivers don’t accept tips.

They offer pamphlets to interested motorists, helping spread the word about the little-known initiative. Drivers are surveyed about their experience. Miller, the FSP driver, has seen some of the responses. One person said they would have missed a flight were it not for FSP, while another person was just glad to have been taken to a tire shop.

“People are so grateful,” Miller said.

For drivers like Miller, all this adds up to a rewarding job. Miller says he’s come across people who were “scared to death.” He does what he can to help them.

Stuck on the side of the road, drivers can be frustrated, scared or worried about how they’re going to move their vehicle. Miller takes pride in helping drivers feel safe, maybe also improving their rough day in the process.

“We tell them, ‘We’re going to get you out of here,’” he said. And for each driver he helps, Sacramento’s freeways have one less accident for others to navigate.

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