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Critics call for reform of toll collection system
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Critics call for reform of the system behind tollway camera like this one at the Arlington Heights Road entrance ramp to westbound I-90.

 

Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

The tollway headquarters in Downers Grove.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

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Published: 1/7/2008 12:08 AM | Updated: 1/17/2008 1:01 PM

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Beyond the thick metal beams stretching over new Open Road Tolling lanes …

Behind the eyes of high-tech cameras that click images of speeding cars below …

The tollway's ability to catch toll cheats -- and the incentive for drivers to make sure they're paying in the absence of toll gates, rests on the policies and computer systems that send out violation fine notices.

Yet a Daily Herald investigation shows repeated flaws in the system -- some so significant that critics are calling for immediate action and longer-term reform.

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"This system just perpetuates bad public policy," said Terry Pastika, director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, a good-government group.

For one, the tollway could be sending violation notices to the wrong addresses, leaving some drivers to miss out on chances to pay up before fines skyrocket or their driver's licenses are suspended.

In addition, tollway officials say their license plate image readers have trouble discerning differences among the myriad of plate varieties, affecting about 25 percent of all plates on the road. This may result in fines being leveled against law-abiding motorists.

Tollway officials say these problems are muted by the lengthy notification process -- which involves at least four letters -- and the ability of the accused to appeal fines.

"If a person calls in, we can take care of it right then and there," said Matt Beaudet, head of the tollway's I-PASS and violation enforcement systems.

But some suburban lawmakers and motorist advocates say the problems need immediate fixes, especially since they can lead to high fines and the loss of driving privileges.

"This certainly doesn't engender confidence in (the tollway's) ability to be fair and equitable," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and proponent of recent tollway reform plans.

Return to sender

The tollway's safeguards against leveling penalties and fines on law-abiding drivers rely on the assumption that violation notices are received by the accused. The system depends on standard mail and a database of license plate addresses that are not always accurate.

The Daily Herald found that of the 253 driver's license or license plate suspensions appealed to the secretary of state since March 2005, 150 suspensions -- 60 percent -- have been thrown out. A majority were tossed because the secretary of state hearing officer found the tollway sent notifications to the wrong address, said secretary of state spokeswoman Penelope Campbell.

Beaudet said the problem is based on different interpretations of a law governing how violations are mailed.

Still, critics say it only highlights flaws in the current system's reliance on one address database.

Sending notices to the wrong address could lead accused toll scofflaws to unknowingly rack up high fines and even lose their license plates and driver's licenses. Moreover, if scofflaws don't respond to the first notice in 21 days, they automatically waive their right to appeal the fines through an administrative hearing.

Regardless, even if the tollway sent notices to an address where the accused no longer lives, it is not grounds to reduce fines or penalties, under tollway policy and Illinois law.

"There is a significant problem here that needs to be addressed," Pastika said. "They just drop (the notice) in the mailbox and assume it gets to the right address."

Currently, the secretary of state's policy is to go with the "last known address" on file, Campbell said, in order to be sure the person is reached.

Yet the tollway only uses the license plate registration database and the address listed there. The secretary of state's driver's license database and license plate database are not connected, so differences in address between the two are not identified.

"We are not going to know that there is another address out there for this person," Beaudet said. "It does seem kind of weird that in this day and age, the systems don't talk to each other."

In several cases reviewed by the Daily Herald, it was clear the secretary of state hearing officer wanted to make sure the alleged toll scofflaw was properly notified.

In some cases, the alleged violator reported not receiving any notice until the secretary of state sent one to the address on their driver's license, which was their actual home. Their license plate address was outdated, and the person failed to correct it.

Tollway officials say they tried to change the law last year so the secretary of state's hearing officer could not throw out suspensions if the tollway relied solely on the license plate database. The measure failed to pass, which Beaudet blames on lawmakers being distracted with bigger issues like health care and gambling expansion.

Better mail

This crack in the system is shedding light on the complaints of critics who have long contended the tollway should do more to ensure notices are getting to the last address on file. Some argue that driver's license addresses are more likely to be accurate than those attached to license plates.

"This whole area has gotten to be a real snake pit," said Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, about notifying individuals of major fines or suspensions through the mail.

Baxter argues that motorists are more likely to change their driver's license address because they see it more often. License plate addresses aren't necessarily at the forefront of their thoughts after moving, he said.

Moreover, there are many reasons someone may be driving a car not registered to them, such as a college student taking the family car or vehicles that are split up in a divorce.

Tollway hearings are full of such stories, but it legally doesn't matter if the letter gets to the right person.

Under Illinois law, the tollway is only responsible to send notices to the address attached to the related license plate.

Drivers are legally responsible to change their license plate and driver's license address 10 days after moving.

"The mail is getting there, and it is really out of our control whatever they choose to do with it," Beaudet said.

Meanwhile, some argue certified mail should be used. That way the person would be required to sign the letter and a record of it would get sent back to the tollway.

"It doesn't appear there is any way they can substantiate that they got that letter," said George Billows, president of the Illinois Trucking Association.

Under Illinois law, the secretary of state is required to send certified letters to truck license holders when their license is about to be suspended for toll violations.

However, standard mail is legal for all notifications sent to regular drivers as well as for tollway fines and license plate suspension notices sent to truck drivers.

"There needs to be a better process," Billows said.

But turning every notice into a certified letter (at several dollars a piece) would be prohibitively expensive, Beaudet said. And, he says, toll scofflaws could refuse the certified letter and evade the fines and penalties.

Beaudet also noted that the courts have upheld using regular mail to notify alleged offenders of fines.

Still, at least one suburban lawmaker concurs with the industry critics and says tollway officials should consider other options.

"None of our options may be ideal," Nekritz said. "But there may be some ways that they could be a little bit more flexible in working to get to the right address."

Plate mix-up

The first line of defense in the tollway's new Open Road Tolling system are the rows of high-tech cameras that snap pictures of alleged toll cheats.

The technology is at least a decade old, but more recent advances in computer software made express I-PASS lanes feasible. The software can identify and read license plates without human intervention and then send out notices connecting those plates to vehicle registration records.

Yet, there is a critical problem with this software: It has real trouble telling the difference between regular Illinois plates and nonstandard Illinois plates, such as environmental or antique plates.

Most nonstandard plates are differentiated by identifying letters that are shorter than the numbers or letters on the plate's main face. For example, the Illinois prevent violence plate has a "PV" vertically on the plate's right side.

The tollway's license-plate reading software can't see those letters and factor them into its search of license plate data, Beaudet said. Nonstandard plates are listed in the state's motor vehicle registration database using codes that relate to those shorter, identifying letters.

Further complicating matters, the nonstandard license plates are allowed to have the same main letters or numbers as regular plates. So, if a toll scofflaw has a "1234" Illinois environmental plate, then the fine could end up going to whomever owns the "1234" regular plate. Meanwhile, the environmental plate owner gets away with ripping off the tollway.

Beaudet said the tollway aims to catch nearly all of the computer errors by having an employee look at the photo of every plate that results in a notice and compare it to the motor license plate registration used to obtain the owner's name and address.

However, the sheer number of different plate types --79, combined with a myriad of out-of-state plate types -- can confuse the employees.

"It is a rare occurrence, but mistakes can happen," Beaudet says.

The reviews take place at a contractor-run I-PASS call center where as many as 100 people are on duty a day. The tollway recently has been sending out notices at a rate of 3,000 a day.

The tollway could not provide records on how many times such a slip-up occurred. The secretary of state's office does not have statistics on the number of nonstandard plates that share the same main letters or numbers as regular plates.

But there are 2.8 million nonstandard plates in Illinois, ranging from special truck plates to plates designated for war veterans, universities and fraternities, according to an analysis by the Daily Herald. They account for about 25 percent of the 11 million license plates in Illinois.

The problem could be solved on two fronts, experts say.

The state could make all the special plates pull from the same pot of letters and numbers. But the secretary of state's office has not studied that idea before, so its practicality remains unclear.

A more realistic possibility, however, could be an advancement in license-plate reading software.

Nationwide issue

Tollways across the nation are grappling with this same technological shortfall as they work to quickly expand Open Road Tolling-like lanes.

"The biggest problem we all face is the license plates themselves," said James Crawford, director of the New Jersey-based E-ZPASS Interagency Group. "We have been doing some learning on that. In those half-dozen states (with numerous nonstandard plates), there have been cases where people get the wrong notice."

The coalition of tollways in 12 states has set out to study the problem, but it remains unclear when a solution will come to the forefront.

Some critics say the problems should have been fixed before the system was put in place.

"There are flaws in this technology that should have been recognized in advance," Baxter said.

And critics of the proliferation of specialty plates in Illinois say the tollway's problems are just one more reason to stop adding more plates.

Law enforcement agencies have long complained that the various plate types cause confusion during the pursuit of criminals.

Yet lawmakers continue to add specialty plates every year at the behest of interest groups. The plates add visibility for causes, and a portion of the purchase fee goes to the related organization.

"Every time one of these (specialty plates) comes up, I get up and give my speech," said state Sen. Dan Rutherford, a Chenoa Republican, and longtime specialty plate opponent. "But it doesn't stop. People won't vote against them."

How to avoid becoming a toll violator

Here are some tips on how to avoid getting snared in the tollway's violation enforcement program:

Pay your toll

If you miss a toll booth, realize you have forgotten your I-PASS transponder or don't have correct change at an exit ramp, make the missed payment within seven days. Here's how:

• Pay online at www.illinoistollway.com.

• Mail check to Illinois Tollway, Attn: Cash Handling Division, 2700 Ogden Ave., Downers Grove, IL 60515

• Pay cash rate, be sure to record and include toll plaza location, date and time of incident, license plate number and state and vehicle owner's name and contact information.

• Keep all records in case you are still fined.

Keep I-PASS transponder operational

• Keep tabs on I-PASS account online or by calling (800) 824-7277.

• Check that I-PASS transponder is working by driving through cash lanes.

• A front-bumper-mounted transponder is available for vehicles with windshields or electronics that interfere with I-PASS frequencies.

• Always keep I-PASS transponder mounted on windshield. Pulling it out of a glove box before the tolling lanes will not work.

• Consider credit card automatic replenishment for I-PASS and remember to update credit card information when it expires.

Keep records up-to-date

• Be sure all your cars' license plates are registered to your I-PASS account.

• Change your e-mail and home addresses with I-PASS when necessary so you get the latest updates.

• Make sure vehicle registration address is same as your home address. Visit www.cyberdriveillinois.com or call (800)252-8980 for more information. Changing an address is free.

• When moving, you must file a forwarding address with the U.S. Postal Service. Visit www.usps.com or call (800)275-8777.

• Keep records of all address changes and I-PASS account additions.

Know who drives your car

• Tollway hearings are full of stories about ex-spouses, children and friends racking up thousands in fines on another person's vehicle.

• It doesn't matter who drives the vehicle; the registered owner is liable.

• The only way to avoid paying fines for others driving your car is to change the vehicle registration.

Source: Daily Herald research

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