Washington Drivers anywhere in the country could dial 511 to avoid traffic tie-ups and families needing food or shelter could call 211 for help under plans approved by federal regulators Friday.
It will be up to local governments and charities to offer the phone services on those numbers.
The Federal Communications Commission, guardian of the scarce three-digit phone numbers, set aside the new codes after determining that quick, easy-to-remember access to those services would greatly benefit the public.
"It's our hope that 211 and 511 for these purposes will become as ubiquitous as 911," said FCC Chairman William Kennard, referring to the nationwide emergency number.
The agency also mandated that phone companies adopt another number -- 711 -- as a code to reach special operators who help the deaf and speech-impaired make calls.
The decision came despite worries by some public safety officials that the addition of all these new -11 codes dilutes the purpose of having one simple, easy-to-remember number for emergencies.
"I think it's difficult for the average person to keep in mind what they are. You almost have to go to a directory to sort them out," said Joe Hanna, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.
The commission will re-evaluate the new codes in five years to see if they are being used efficiently.
Transportation officials who petitioned for the new traffic-information code said they hope to consolidate the 300 separate numbers now dialed by people nationwide.
Local authorities will be responsible for implementing the new traffic phone code and deciding what information to include on their area's prerecorded hot line. To nudge that process along, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said his department will grant selected states and local jurisdictions start-up funds of up to $50,000 each to convert to the new single number.
The code will enable people to access local updates on accidents, construction and traffic in whatever city they're passing through.
In one demonstration, dialing 511 brought callers to a recorded menu where they could enter the number of a route to find out its current travel conditions.
Officials believe that like existing traveler information numbers, the new code could be funded in a variety of ways, including subsidies by local agencies, partnership with private groups or per-call charges.
The 211 code will provide people with free access to health and human services information, including referrals to food banks, shelters, crisis intervention services and drug rehabilitation providers. The number also could link people to groups offering work opportunities and support for the elderly, disabled or children.
Given the range of organizations offering such services, specialists fielding calls on the 211 line could direct people to the best sources, working with a database of groups. Information and referral services currently answer more than 50 million calls a year nationwide.
United Way of America and other groups had urged the commission to set aside the code, citing success in areas where such three-number referral service already exists. The Atlanta area and the state of Connecticut experienced a 40 percent increase in calls after they switched from a 10-digit system to 211.
Local utility regulators will select who will be awarded the 211 number in each state. In the few places using it already, the number is generally supported through funds from the government and groups such as United Way.
The agency also mandated Friday that broadcasters and cable companies provide some voice narration of the action in TV shows for visually impaired audiences in their biggest markets. They will be required to describe about four hours per week of prime time and-or children's programming.
Only broadcasters affiliated with the big four networks in their top 25 markets are affected.
Cable operators and satellite companies with more than 50,000 subscribers would have to do the same for their five most popular channels. The requirements take effect in April 2002.
On the Net: Federal Communications Commission site: http://www.fcc.gov
Transportation Department: http://www.its.dot.gov
Coalition supporting new 211 number: http://www.211.org