Nobody likes having to pay tolls, and news of toll hikes rarely sits well with the vehicle-driving public. But the fact remains that tolls play a critical role in our roadway system. They provide a significant amount of funds used to maintain and improve roads, bridges and tunnels.
Losing just a fraction of toll revenue can be financially damaging to agencies charged with overseeing said roads. Unfortunately, that is precisely what’s happening due to the growing trend of toll evasion. The last several years have seen an increase in the number of drivers attempting to evade paying their fair share of toll funds.
Here’s how they do it and how authorities are cracking down.
What Is Toll Evasion?
Simply put, toll evasion occurs when a motorist illegally “bypasses” a toll without paying the proper fee.
It was a more difficult task back in the day, when each toll booth had a barrier gate that was only lifted when the driver paid their fare or had their transponder read. But in recent years, many states have begun transitioning to cashless tolling. Instead of toll booths, these systems utilize an overhead framework of cameras and transponder readers.
If you have a transponder, the toll process is the same as before. If you drive through a cashless tolling system without a transponder, however, the cameras will take a picture of your license plate. That plate number is then matched to your registration. A few weeks later, a bill will be in your mailbox. The cashless tolling process helps traffic move more freely and improves driver safety. But it also provides toll evaders with an opportunity.
More and more motorists looking to get a free ride are obstructing their license plates as they pass through cashless tolling spots. This can prevent the cameras from picking up the number and, in turn, motorists getting billed.
Toll evaders use a number of creative ways to “hide” their license plates. Many try to muddy their plates with dirt, paint or grease. Others use plastic covers on their license plates that can distort the numbers when viewed at an angle. These covers are easy to find and even easier to install.
The Rise in Toll Evasion
The increase in cashless tolling has brought with it an increase in toll evasion. In Massachusetts alone, more than 14,500 obstructed license plates were recorded by the state’s Department of Transportation over a roughly three-year period, from late 2016 to early 2020, according to Boston 25 News.
With tens of millions of dollars on the line, authorities are homing in on toll evaders. In May, the New York State Police, NYPD, New York City Sheriff, Port Authority and MTA announced a joint effort to crack down on toll evasion.
Through increased enforcement and sharing of information, authorities can track down violators after the fact. If you evade a toll, it does not mean you have gotten away. By piecing together other images and videos, authorities can often identify your vehicle and, if so, will flag your car.
According to the MTA, it tracked down 1,300 toll evaders in 2021 using such methods. The agency also claims to have recovered 93% of all toll fare owed by repeat offenders since 2017, a total of $43 million. “Protecting toll revenue is one of our primary missions, crucial to the upkeep and improvements of our infrastructure and providing support to mass transit,” said Daniel F. DeCrescenzo, Jr., president of MTA Bridges and Tunnels. “We are determined to continue to make progress against toll evasion through education and enforcement.”
Know the Law (and The Penalties)
Every state has a law on the books requiring license plates to be both affixed to the vehicle and legible. In Massachusetts, it reads “plates shall be kept clean with the numbers legible and shall not be obscured in any manner by the installation of any device obscuring said numbers.” New York’s law goes one step further, specifying that license plates “shall not be knowingly covered or coated with any artificial or synthetic material or substance that…distorts a recorded or photographic image of such number plates.”
If you get caught breaking these laws, it will cost you. Citations for knowingly obstructing your license plate come with fines upwards of $300. Repeat offenders can even lose their driver’s licenses and/or have their cars impounded.
What do you think about cashless tolling and what can be done to prevent toll evasion? Tell us in the comments.