Doesn’t it seem like life was simpler just a few years ago?

I mean back when you didn’t need a Ph.D. to buy a TV. Back when there was only one electric company to be mad at. And when you knew you were on a toll road because you came to tollbooths.

Unfortunately, these days you may not know you have driven on a toll road until a bill shows up in the mail.

Or worse, like Marcia Cirillo, you may find out only when a debt collector calls to demand payment for a whopping bill of tolls and penalties.

We are entering the era of ETC – electronic toll collection. As you may have seen, Dallas hosted delegates from 20 countries this week to discuss ETC, also called “open road tolling.”

Tollbooths will soon be relics of the past.

There’s no denying that electronic collection is progress. Who likes sitting in long lines at a toll plaza?

But ask Ms. Cirillo or Ben Westhoff. It’s also a system with bugs to be worked out.

If you have a TollTag and never drive toll roads outside Texas, you’re probably safe.

But Ms. Cirillo doesn’t have a TollTag, avoids toll roads and sure didn’t know she was on one the few times she drove along new stretches of State Highway 121.

“I saw signs that talked about tolls, but since I never came to a tollbooth, I just figured the tolls weren’t in effect yet,” she said.

She first drove on the road in May of 2007. If everything worked as intended, a photo of her license plate would have resulted in a bill the next month – and every month until it was paid.

Instead, she heard nothing until a collection agency phoned her Monday to dun her for $260 in tolls and penalties.

No one can quite explain to Ms. Cirillo why she didn’t receive more than a year of monthly bills. But now she has been offered a “deal,” reducing the debt to $90 – provided she agrees to get a TollTag.

“That feels like coercion to me,” she said. But she will probably take it.

Ben Westhoff had another crazy tale to tell in a recent guest column in the newspaper. He visited Dallas in March and drove a rental car.

Once back home in New Jersey, he got a bill for $22.40 from a Montana-based collection agency.

He was mystified. Only after several phone calls did he discover that electronic toll collection had snagged him – along with a stupid policy by the rental car company.

Instead of direct-billing him for the $2.40 in tolls charged to the car, Advantage Rent A Car automatically passed the matter to a collection agency, which tacked on $5 to each of the four 60-cent tolls.

This galling sort of thing apparently happens all the time to out-of-town visitors, whether in rental cars or their own vehicles.

Sherita Coffelt is spokeswoman for the North Texas Tollway Authority. She says electronic toll collection is a wonderful thing. It speeds traffic and reduces pollution.

“But there will be hiccups,” she said. “I liken this to the transition to digital television. There are a bunch of questions.”

See, we’re back to TVs and all that confusion.

Ms. Coffelt said a public awareness campaign kicks off soon to educate drivers about electronic toll collection.

For most of us, here’s the bottom line: Give in, get a TollTag (972-818-NTTA) and relax.

And if you object to having a TollTag forced on you? Well, you should have lived in simpler times.

Like 2006.

AUTHOR: Steve Blow
DATED: 16th July 2008