E-Z Pass Violators Display Ingenuity in New Jersey

The increasing use of E-Z Pass for the electronic payment of tolls is cutting down on traffic jams. But state officials now have a new dilemma: the E-Z Pass scofflaw. Nancy Solomon reports from New Jersey.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It may sound a lot like the road you're on right now, but this is a recording of the busiest toll plaza in the country.

(Soundbite of vehicles passing)

SIEGEL: It's at the crossroads of the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. Traffic jams here aren't nearly so bad as they used to be now that most of the drives have E-Z Pass. For the uninitiated, that's an electronic transponder that attaches to the windshield and allows the driver to be billed without stopping. In some cases, you don't even have to slow down.

But with this new technology comes a new law enforcement problem - what to do with the scofflaws who whiz through without paying. NPR's Nancy Solomon reports.

(Soundbite of music)

NANCY SOLOMON: In the opening credits of "The Sopranos" television show, Tony stops at a toll plaza and takes a ticket. Even America's favorite mobster pays to drive on the New Jersey Turnpike. He's in good company, too, since about 99 percent of all drivers do, according to Michael Lapolla, director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

Mr. MICHAEL LAPOLLA (Director, New Jersey Turnpike Authority): But there is a, I will call them a class of driver, which crosses all economic, counties, gender. There's many people driving Mercedes as there are driving beat-up 20-year-old cars, who have made a conscientious decisions not to pay tolls.

SOLOMON: The New Jersey Turnpike Authority processes a half-billion E-Z pass transactions each year - tops in the country. As each car goes through the toll lane, a photo of the license plate is taken. When no transponder is detected, Lapolla says a violation notice is sent to the registered owner.

Mr. LAPOLLA: We have people, for example, who will take black electrical tape and change, you know, a P to an R, or do something to create a false license plate, which is very hard to tell.

SOLOMON: Lapolla says some drivers take very, shall we say, creative approaches to avoiding payment.

Mr. LAPOLLA: Our favorite is the guy who hooked up this system with a string so that, as he was driving through the toll, he pulled the string, and it lifted the license plate halfway up so a picture couldn't be taken of it. I think they stole it from an episode of "Little Rascals," from 60 years ago.

SOLOMON: That kind of ingenuity might slow down the process, but Lapolla says, it's not all that difficult to catch someone if the state really wants to.

Mr. LAPOLLA: They will get on and off at the same place, go through the exact same lane, virtually, at the exact same time. So finding them has not been particularly difficult.

SOLOMON: According to Lapolla, the guy with the trick license plate owes about $3,000 and is yet to pay up. The Turnpike Authority refers cases like his to the state police. But New Jersey has taken a fairly laid back approach to occasional cheaters.

In New Hamsphire, drivers with outstanding E-Z Pass bills were recently warned that if they didn't pay, they'd lose their licenses.

Bill Boynton, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, says initially, many people were confused by the system and made honest mistakes.

Mr. BILL BOYNTON (Spokesman, New Hampshire Department of Transportation): Now, We're at the point where the motorists are educated about our system and they really - for the most part - should know how it operates. And so we want to maintain the integrity of that system by making sure that people know that there will be repercussions if they try to go through without paying.

SOLOMON: As more drivers use the E-Z Pass system, it's likely other states will also go after scofflaws more aggressively. New Jersey raises $800 million a year on its toll roads, and estimates that it loses more than $5 million a year in nonpayment. That's a tiny fraction of revenues, but it would go a long way toward filling the state's potholes.

Whatever measure states take to cut down on scofflaws, they're not likely to employ the method commonly in use around New York City. Call it a lack of trust or maybe common sense, but many E-Z Pass booths have a mechanical gate that drops and rises between each paid customer.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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