New Highway Helper comes to the rescue

State-operated road-assistance vehicles will patrol daily

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A new, free roadside assistance service operated by the state is now mobile in Eastern Iowa.

Two customized white Ford F350 pickups with Highway Helper markings will be patrolling 43 miles of Interstates 380 and 80 and Highways 218 and 30. They will have an additional 10 miles of on-call jurisdiction in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids areas.

The vehicles will assist stranded motorists with a jump start, changing a flat tire or pushing a stalled car out of the roadway.

They also can help with traffic control during accidents.

“I don’t think I’ve had one person who wasn’t happy when I showed up,” said Jordan Lamb, a driver and supervisor for Highway Helper in Eastern Iowa.

Highway Helper launched in Des Moines in August and in Eastern Iowa and the Council Bluffs area on Monday.

Two vehicles per location will be on the road daily from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., excluding weekends and major holidays. Each location has a third vehicle as a backup.

Highway Helper is intended to remove traffic disruptions quickly to prevent secondary accidents. According to the state Department of Transportation, traffic incidents and bottlenecks account for 50 percent of the congestion in Iowa. Secondary crashes represent up to 20 percent of all crashes.

Highway Helper is funded by the Iowa DOT and run by Prairie Land Towing of Wisconsin. The Iowa DOT ran Highway Helper in-house in the Des Moines area since 1995 and decided to expand it to a contracted service after positive results.

The $9.1 million, three-year expenditure received blowback, with some lawmakers questioning the price tag.

The Highway Helper trucks, with 6.7-liter diesel engines, have push bumpers, a crew cab for transporting stranded motorists to somewhere safe, such as a gas station or restaurant, a digital message board, an automated external defibrillator, and a utility box packed with tools, gasoline and diesel, an air compressor and more.

“Anything on the side of the road, any car that is stopped, we will stop at,” Lamb said.

Lamb said within 45 minutes of launch on Monday, they had already been dispatched to an accident. He said they received four calls the first day, including changing a flat tire, checking on an abandoned vehicle and using the digital message board to warn of an accident.

The Des Moines area responds to 20 to 25 stops a day, Lamb said.

“They are on patrol,” said Cathy Cutler, a transportation planner for Iowa DOT District 6 office in Cedar Rapids. “They aren’t sitting still waiting for a call.”

The drivers can stop at their discretion or be dispatched by the Iowa DOT. Motorists cannot call directly for assistance.

John Wilson, the Iowa DOT program manager for the project, said the trucks can’t tow vehicles and are not intended to rival automotive services.

“We aren’t here to compete with towing services,” he said. “The purpose is to to get vehicles off the road and make the road safer.”

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