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Editorial: Protect drivers from unfair toll penalties

Editorial: Protect drivers from unfair toll penalties

The governor should sign a bill called the Toll Payer Protection Act
Editorial: Protect drivers from unfair toll penalties
New York’s experiment with cashless tolls has resulted in some unsuspecting drivers accumulating large late fees and fines.

Imagine you’re driving along minding your own business and a police officer pulls you over.

He says you’ve got an unpaid traffic toll from one of those cashless toll booths, and that you’ve accumulated hundreds of dollars in late charges and fines.

You barely remember even driving through the booth, and you certainly don’t remember having gotten a bill for the toll in the mail.

So naturally, with no notice to remind you to pay, you forgot about it and went on with your life.

But the state of New York hasn’t forgotten.

And for many drivers, the day of reckoning arrives out of the blue like a punch in the stomach.

Some drivers who’ve had this happen to them have not only had to write big checks to the state for what might have been a relatively small original toll, but some have had their vehicle registrations suspended and even their cars confiscated in extreme circumstances.

In many of those cases, the state either waited several weeks to send out a bill or never sent one at all. But that didn’t stop the state from piling on mountains of fines and fees in the meantime. And even when the charges have been levied, sometimes the state hasn’t been able to offer an explanation for how it arrived at the final figure. Some overdue bills have even been sent to collection agencies, many times without the drivers even being aware the payments were overdue.

That’s all a pretty high price to pay for the legal act of driving through a toll booth.

Obviously. the state hasn’t quite worked all the bugs out of its experimental cashless toll system, where drivers without E-ZPass tags pass through designated cashless toll booths without stopping to pay the toll. The idea is that the state will take a photo of your license plate, get your address from the DMV, and send you a bill for the toll in the mail, which you then pay.

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way in many cases.

And while the state continues to tweak the payment system, unsuspecting New Yorkers are getting hammered with penalties.

That’s why it’s important that Gov. Andrew Cuomo sign a bill (A7587A/S6113A) called the Toll Payer Protection Act, which would provide protections for drivers who, through no fault of their own, get caught in the financial death roll of the cashless tolling system.

The legislation sets reasonable caps on fines that can be imposed and eliminates the ability of the state to suspend vehicle registrations. 

The state would be required to send out toll bills by first-class mail within 30 days, and the driver would have to pay the toll within 30 days to avoid a penalty. The legislation prohibits the state from sending an overdue bill to a collection agency for a year or unless the driver has accumulated $1,000 in overdue payments. And it allows drivers to receive electronic notifications of overdue bills, to contest disputed tolls and to pay the tolls and fines through a monthly repayment plan. 

“The first time a driver finds out about a toll bill should not be once it’s in collections,” said the bill’s Senate sponsor. Sen. David Carlucci of Westchester County.

Cuomo vetoed an earlier version of the bill, prompting lawmakers to come up with this amended version.

Cuomo might object to the relatively small fines ($5 for not paying within 30 days and $25 for not responding to a second notice within another 30 days).

If the fines aren’t high enough to compel someone to pay their tolls, why would they, especially if they’re in no danger of having their registration revoked.

But there actually are significant long-term penalties beyond the relatively small initial penalty for overdue bills, including the threat of collection when the charges get too high or hang around too long.

If the state finds that people are ignoring the bills due to perceived light penalties, it can go back and increase them.

The key issue here is to initiate immediate protections for motorists to ensure they’re not unfairly treated and excessively penalized by the current cashless tolling system.

If the state goes to full cashless tolling, as it expects to by the end of next year on the Thruway, then these issues will have needed to be worked out.

So why not work them out now, before the potential problems are compounded?

Tolls are meant to support construction and maintenance of our highways. They’re not meant to be a cash cow for the state through the imposition of unfair and exorbitant fines and fees on drivers.

The governor should sign this legislation before any more drivers get any more unwelcome surprises.

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