You know what drives me up a wall, over the top and back down again? Unmanned toll booths.
These miracles of modern technology allow extraordinarily broke and mismanaged state departments of transportation to levy a fee on motorists without having to do any real work to collect the cash. It’s not as bad as a red light camera, but comes from the same premise that government can do whatever it wants whether or not it makes sense or is actually an efficient way to do something.
I encountered an unmanned toll booth in Oklahoma last Thursday.
I was driving along in my towed vehicle minding my own business on my way to an interview when my GPS told me to turn left and take a different highway. As soon as I made the turn, I saw the little beast dead ahead. It was demanding 50 cents. That’s it, just two quarters. I dug into my pocket and came up with 32 cents. Years of being a dad of daughters only trained me to NEVER leave much cash in my pockets.
So, I looked for a change machine — none.
I looked for a slot to slide a dollar bill into the device — none.
I looked for an envelope in which I could mail in the fee — none.
How about a phone number to call for help? Nope. Just R2D2 standing their with its mouth open.
The driver behind me was growing impatient, so I drove through the toll plaza with bells ringing, red lights flashing and a camera blinking as it recorded what the State of Oklahoma calls a case of “toll evasion.”
That term is what really gets under my skin. I have absolutely no problem paying a toll. Just put someone there to accept my money and hand me a receipt. Believe it or not, state governments don’t take kindly to deducting items on tax forms without a receipt. Perhaps this is a way of taxing people twice by collecting a toll and not allowing it to be deducted as a travel expense. Apparently, drivers in Oklahoma are well accustomed to being accosted by electronic bandits. But, what about us RVers who are just visiting the state?
After arriving at my destination early, I googled the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority for instructions on what to do. I found a phone number to call and selected violations on one of the umpteen options recited by the automatic attendant. Apparently, everything is automated at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. I can only imagine the hoopla it would take to get a license plate in that state.
I finally got a human being who, sounding like a robot, gave me instructions on what to do to fix the problem. He could not take a credit card number. There is no website where someone can log in to pay a fine. You have two options, one of which is to wait for the mail to arrive with a bill for the actual 50-cent toll plus a $50 penalty for toll evasion. The other is to:
- Write a letter explaining the date, time, location of the booth, the direction I was traveling and the name of the turnpike I was on. How in heck am I supposed to know that? I was simply following the directions of the GPS. Besides, the cost to mail a letter is 49 cents.
- Once the letter is written, I had to send a CHECK — an actual paper check — for 50 cents to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. I don’t know about you, but my bank charges me for every paper check I cash with a fee of something like $2, which is why I don’t use checks any more. I’d have to get a money order, and who knows what those cost.
- Mail the letter and the payment to the agency within three days of the violation. So, what if you’re traveling? He said find a place to send it within three days. If Oklahoma state employees are anything, they are empathetic.
Here’s the catch. The State of Oklahoma would spend far more than 50 cents to look up my license plate on the national database, enter the information into a computer, send me a letter demanding payment and threatening to have my driving privileges revoked if I failed to comply. They would need to spend at least 25 cents to simply deposit the check, let alone pay someone to write it on a check register, run a calculator tape and take it to the bank.
When you’re the State of Oklahoma, money is no object — as long as your spending someone else’s.
In the end, I paid the toll at a manned booth the following day, and mailed in the receipt. But, it was still an unwelcome inconvenience, especially in 2015 when everything except state government transactions are completed instantly online. Maybe, someday, someone will point out that the state would pay 5 cents to accept a credit card to pay a 50-cent transaction, and have access to the cash the next day.
So, if you’re driving through Oklahoma, make sure your pockets are full of coins of various denominations because you never know when you’ll encounter an electronic troll when you least expect it. Or better yet, how about having a single electronic toll device that works in every state? WHOA! That’s another 50 years in the making.