Friday, January 16, 2004

EZ Felon

If you drive a lot, especially longer distances, one of the greatest advances is the automatic toll charge system that has been instituted in a variety of localities. Going under a number of banners, such as Fast Lane or EZ Pass, they all employ technology to speed your trip... not in the form of better engines or aerodynamics, but through remote access to your wallet. In each system, you attach a transponder to the windshield of your vehicle. Then, as you approach the tollbooth, a specialized overhead receiver communicates with the transponder. It reads your number, looks up your account, debits the appropriate amount, and raises the toll gate, all in less time than it usually takes you to hand a quarter to the bored clerk on duty. As the Chef of the Future might say, "Zip Zip!" and you're on your way.

As the system has been rolled out, it has coexisted with the more traditional toll baskets or takers. In some cases, lanes are set up as either cash or credit. In others, some are exclusively reserved for those that have made the leap into 21st century accounting. But while the basic technological installation has to be considered a success, the bottom line is that it doesn't exactly fulfill all the goals for which it was reaching.

That's because the stated intention of all this hardware and software is to speed your trip. And while those in the chute certainly go through it faster, getting there is still a battle. When traffic starts to bunch up several miles before the tolls, those with this space age technology are trapped in the pack just like those with old-fashioned coins. Only when you get close to end game do the queues start to form appropriately, so that the last 100 yards or so move expeditiously.

To deal with this reality, the traffic gurus are starting to construct specialized lanes designed for higher speed passage. These are generally located to the far left, and marked well in advance. While those built in the shells of old tollbooths are made a little wider than usual by the removal of the existing structure, newer ones are designed as wide-open roadways with overhead readers, allowing drivers to navigate them faster and safer. Set apart from the usual lanes by zebra stripes and/or concrete barricades, they offer a true expressway for those who opt in.

While safety considerations restrict some of these lanes to 35 miles per hour or less, others take advantage of the system's ability to read transponders at speeds of 55 or 60 MPH. And so once you've had the experience of zipping through the lanes, habits start to form, and you know that in spite of the signs that are posted, higher speeds don't set off alarm bells. And after all, isn't the goal of the system to speed your trip? Since the lanes are automatic, you've signed up for the service and they've spent millions installing the hardware, pushing the envelope is a normal reaction, and seems the citizenly thing to do.

But it doesn't work that way. Rules are rules, and those that break them have to be brought to heel. And based on notices received in my mail, it seems I am one such felon.

Taking a different way home than usual a few nights in a row, I transversed a particular bridge with the new express lanes installed. I dutifully moved to the left, out of the steadily backing up stream of traffic, and headed for the thru lanes. Moving steadily with my fellow drivers, I shot through the chute, and came out the other side, easily gaining a 10 minute advantage on those who still used their Washingtons and Lincolns to pay their way.

So imagine my surprise when 6 weeks later I received a "You're a bad boy" notice from the authorities. Seems at that particular crossing the express lines are posted as 20MPH, while I was doing 25. And since I had flaunted the rules 2 days in a row, I was getting a slap on the wrist until I toed the line.

Now, I know I drive fast, but it's hardly unsafe. I've never the fastest car on the road, and get passed often. But since I do a lot of driving, I'm fairly comfortable playing at the upper range of the limits. And we all know that if you actually drive the speed limit, people pass you like you're standing still.

Still, wrong is wrong. And if they caught me, I'll pay the piper. Just one problem... the payment is in hard time, not cash. The penalty assessed is suspension of my account privileges for 60 days. So to teach me a lesson, they're going to gum up the system further, and throw me back in with the huddled masses. I'll have to go back to using cash, adding to traffic congestion and being late for dinner. And frankly, I'm now more likely to speed after I leave the toll booth rather than when I go through it, making up for the time I'm losing needlessly when I know how efficient I was before. It may not be right, but just like Mother, you can't fight human nature.

The good news for me is that my schedule doesn't call for me to use the system for a while, or I can go around most of it. Still, sooner or later I'll have to deal with the issue. And so, when those occasions come when I must, I'll show that I've learned my lesson... I'll just take my wife's car.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is actually a pretty good driver. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.