$17,000 Fine For $36 in Unpaid Electronic Tolls?

E lectronic tolls may be the wave of the future for motorists to easily pay tolls while driving on highways without having to stop — but it also sure seems easy for something to go wrong in the favor of the company which collects the tolls.

According to this article written by Emily Miller — the chief investigative reporter of WTTG Fox 5 television which serves the greater Washington, D.C. area — a frustrated motorist who commutes from Gaithersburg to Alexandria in the express lanes on the Capital Beltway pays the tolls with his E-ZPass account, which is deducted automatically from his credit card…

…but he received a fine of $17,000.00 for $36 in unpaid tolls. Attempts to resolve the problem directly with Transurban — a private company which manages the toll lanes in Virginia — have been unsuccessful; and he faces a looming court date.

He is apparently not the only person experiencing this unnecessary stress and waste of time on a technology which is supposed to save time for motorists.

Concerns pertaining to electronic tolling were highlighted in this article posted by me last month where motorists have been “gouged” by rental car companies which charged renters fees in addition to the tolls.

My question is: if the commuter in the aforementioned story was on an extended stay instead of being based in the greater District of Columbia area and had $17,000.00 in fines erroneously amassed against him, what would a rental car company have charged in fees?

While the majority of those who use electronic tolls purportedly have no issues, another concern is the possibility of complacency which may lull motorists into paying more through fees and increases in tolls. I know that when a toll is increased and I pay for it with cash, I absolutely notice it right there and then and pay it right there and then. I also request a receipt on the spot as well without having to wait for a bill at the end of the month. I do not like the idea of setting up an account, paying for the use of a transponder, and having to check my bill at the end of each month to ensure that it is correct — let alone have the possibility of enduring the inconvenience of having a costly mistake charged against me.

I also do not support private companies which administer tolls on roads paid with public funds — either partially or completely. Then again, I never did like the concept of tolls in general — especially when taxes are levied to fund roadway and highway projects…

…but if electronic tolls are indeed the wave of the future, companies need to be more diligent in ensuring that its billing methods are accurate; and that if there is a dispute over the billing, the company should have a process in place which defrays as much of the burden off of the motorist as possible.

For highways where everyone is required to pay a toll and not necessarily for the privilege of using express lanes, I still believe that there should be one lane reserved for the manual collection of tolls for those people who do not use transponders. It is ridiculous to charge a fee to a motorist just so that he or she would have the ability to pay a toll…

…but then again, it is even more ridiculous to be presented with a fine of thousands of dollars for a few unpaid tolls, in my opinion. What is even worse is that the incessant harassment by the private company is such that when a motorist is presented with a compromise to close the case, he or she will usually agree to pay the penalty — even if he or she was not at fault — just to rid himself or herself of the stress and aggravation.

With the case of the commuter who was fined $17,000.00, he wound up agreeing to pay $264.00 — despite believing that he should not have had to pay anything at all due to what was supposedly an accounting error by the private company.

Although not an exact analogy, this sounds similar to airlines which remove benefit after benefit from its frequent customers — only to have those customers happy when one or two of those benefits are restored as a “giveback” or a “compromise”…

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