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Dulles Toll Cameras Questioned

Some drivers are raising concerns about the enforcement cameras on the Dulles Toll Road. The commonwealth started using them this year to snag motorists who went through the toll plazas without paying.

Drivers who don't have E-ZPasses make two complaints: The cameras just don't work properly, photographing the vehicles' license plates for a violation notice when they've just paid; or they record them going through a lane that was supposed to have been staffed but wasn't, so they couldn't pay the toll and couldn't wait because other cars were right behind them.

Who else has had this experience?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

What does a driver do when a VDOT camera-enabled open toll lane malfunctions on Route 267? I use the Route 267 toll booths 40 times a month on my way to work in Reston. Sometimes a toll-booth's lane alarm is constantly ringing and the red-light continuously on even though the toll booth is open and the drivers are paying their fees (this is especially true on lanes without operators).

Drivers obviously must pass through to prevent traffic from backing up behind them. And toll booth operators often waive the traffic through when cars hesitantly slow down after fee payment while waiting for the never-appearing green light. Also, sometimes the amount of time between the green light and the red light is too short to allow a car to completely pass through before the camera presumably clicks a photo.

I just received a fine from VDOT for $27 for three infractions over the past four months, and I am innocent. Now I am wondering what a driver is supposed to do when the toll-booth lane's camera system has obviously malfunctioned.

Frank Poulin
Germantown

Join me at 1 p.m. today for a Live Online chat, during which we can discuss enforcement cameras or any transportation topic that's been on your mind lately. We've had many issues come up concerning roads and rails in the two weeks since our last chat. To reach today's discussion, you can use this link. Here's a link that will take you right to the form for submitting a question or comment.

Of course, you're always most welcome to submit a comment here on the blog, or write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. That's my address for submissions to the Dr. Gridlock column.

By Robert Thomson  |  May 7, 2007; 7:32 AM ET
Categories:  highways  
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Comments

My only suggestion is to get a SmarTrip tag. That way, they have proof of each toll right there in their toll database. Even that's not a foolproof solution, though... a few years ago I was pulled over by a Dulles Airport policeman who issued me a ticket for going through a toll without paying. Turned out that he thought I blew through because the driver **in front of me** hadn't paid. At least I was able to prove in traffic court that I had indeed paid my toll, but it cost me half a day in traffic court and a lot of aggravation.

Posted by: scooterndc | May 7, 2007 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Although it has gotten better lately when I roll through on my motorcycle with the EZPass, it will sometimes not read no matter how slow I go. In my truck I can blow through at 60 and it reads it.

Posted by: Stick | May 7, 2007 9:06 AM | Report abuse

If you have your EZ-Pass statements showing that you paid the toll, you should be able to avoid the fine. If your tag did not register, you might be able to give them the tag number and they can charge it, also avoiding the fine. Unfortunately you have to do the work.

Posted by: Missy | May 7, 2007 9:34 AM | Report abuse

I am careful to exchange my E-Z Pass Tag every other year or so because the battery inside will wear out gradually,thereby giving intermittent readings and possibly resulting in your photo being taken. Say "cheese"

Posted by: Tag | May 7, 2007 9:45 AM | Report abuse

This happened to me too! I rarely use the toll road, but had to the other day. I was in an unmanned cash only line and saw a car in front of me go through and have it blink red and blow the bell noise, and I thought, hey, he violated! Then it comes to me, I toss in my coins, and it does the same thing to me! I'm worried I'm going to get a ticket, and how will I prove I paid? Will they just not give tickets for that stretch of time because the toll booth was malfunctioning?

Posted by: Arlington | May 7, 2007 10:09 AM | Report abuse

I always use E-ZPass, but if I were to pay cash, I think I would ask for a receipt, especially if I saw the red light flashing for the car in front of me. I don't know whether the toll machine lanes on the Dulles Toll Road allow you to hit a button for a receipt (I recall that the ones in New York used to have this option), but if they do, I'd suggest that you make sure to hit that button.

Posted by: Rich | May 7, 2007 10:19 AM | Report abuse

You shouldn't have to get SmartTag to avoid being improperly fined. They need to devise a system that makes the camera enforcement 100% correct or remove the cameras.

Posted by: Jason | May 7, 2007 10:21 AM | Report abuse

If you have EZPass, the system will check your license plate and assess the toll, even if the transponder is not working. As long asyour plate is in the system, you will not receive a fine.

Posted by: Andrew | May 7, 2007 10:21 AM | Report abuse

I don't imagine it helped the situation when the WashPost printed an article ("Dulles Road Cheaters Take Toll on Virginia", 12/16/2005) revealing that toll violations were never ticketed. Apparently that situation has been remedied but it would be interesting to see statistics of toll violations before and after that story.

Posted by: Drew | May 7, 2007 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Also had issues with toll not registering EZ-pass. I got stopped by a policeman and given a ticket for passing through without paying. Then I had to spend 1/2 a day in court because there wasn't even an option to claim guilty and pay a fine (I was of course found not guilty in court). What bothered me the most is that the police officer had no way of checking right on the spot whether or not I had a valid EZ-pass that simply did not register - instead I had to waste my day in court to prove it.

Posted by: k | May 7, 2007 11:14 AM | Report abuse

my wife and I noticed that in 2005 we used the Dulles toll road to get to Leesburg at least 4 times but no money was ever taken out of our EZ-Pass and we received no no ticket notices, etc. It made me really nervous that a ticket is out there, but who should I contact?

Posted by: DCer | May 7, 2007 11:53 AM | Report abuse

This problem is not just limited to the DC area. Some folks up the pike in Baltimore have been having BIG problems with this at the toll plazas - even folks with valid, registered EZ-Pass transponders. One of the TV stations up there did some investigative reporting and found that the back-office customer support center employees are trained to reject ALL appeals. Yikes! The URL is here: http://www.wbaltv.com/11investigates/index.html

Posted by: pete | May 7, 2007 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Regarding Baltimore--the toll plaza at the Tydings Bridge (the "crosswinds bridge" over the Susquehanna on I-95) has been a problem for several years for E-ZPass holders. I know several people who've gotten tickets there for allegedly blowing through the E-ZPass lane without paying, even though every other tollbooth from here to New York read the E-ZPass properly. It got even more ridiculous when the ticket my brother got was for driving a truck (he drives a Honda Civic)....his was thrown out when he appealed.

Clearly there's something odd up there.

Posted by: Rich | May 7, 2007 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I do not have an EZ Pass. I use the exact change lane and always pay my toll. I recently received a violation notice stating I had two violations of non-payment totaling $25.70 which I am disputing since I did pay the toll. I informed them that, while I beleive their equipment was malfunctioning as the car in front of me also placed money in the basket yet the alarm sounded, I would need proof of the second violation (which is required by law in order to impose the $25.00 administrative fee). They mailed me a second photo of my vehicle. What is interesting is that in both pictures my window is down - in the months of winter - which seems logical to assume for the purpose of paying the toll. I am somewhat personally relieved, but yet also more frustrated to find that this is an issue that many others are having and now I have to spend time proving my innoconce!

Posted by: DtoR | May 7, 2007 1:36 PM | Report abuse

We received a fine and a photo of my daughter's car saying that she failed to pay the toll both ways on the Dulles Toll Road. My daugher swore that she had put the money in and the bell was still ringing when she drove through. We have no way of proving it so we paid the fine of $26.

Posted by: Sharon | May 7, 2007 1:57 PM | Report abuse

I also had a similar experience returning from the new air & space museum. I threw in the coins, but they apparently didn't register. I dug around and came up with more coins, threw them in the basket also. Still no joy. Drove through and heard the alarm and saw the light in the rearview mirror. Haven't received a ticket, yet.

Posted by: Dave | May 7, 2007 2:10 PM | Report abuse

This happened to me the week before last. I was driving out on the Dulles Toll Road with a coworker and the lane I went through had a red light and the alarm ringing. My co-worker said she'd sign an affidavit for me, if it became necessary!

How long does it usually take for a ticket to show up in the mail?

Posted by: alexva | May 7, 2007 2:13 PM | Report abuse

I was the first person to ever blow through one of the toll lanes (back when it was around $0.15) and I just got my ticket last week.

Posted by: Tickets | May 7, 2007 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I've had EZ Pass when I was in NY but didn't use it again for a couple of years and now, because I do travelling up the eastern seaboard, need to get another one. Why is it that this system worked/works fine in every state except Virginia and parts of Maryland? I used it in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania without a problem, ever. What's going on here and why? Is it the "George Bush let's screw them as much as possible" theory? --Because they just won't notice.

Posted by: Jarrod | May 7, 2007 2:33 PM | Report abuse

True story:

Last month, I put the toll money in the basket at the Reston Parkway exit and the gate didn't open. I signaled the agent who then opened the gate from her booth.

A week later, I received a letter from EZ Pass with a photo of my car and a demand for the 50 cent toll plus a $25.00 "administrative fee". I replied with an explanation; they replied with a "final demand" and a threat to engage a "national collection agency" and have my "priviledge to drive in Virginia" suspended.

All of this to collect revenue for Dulles rail. I've never been a supporter, but considering how much this boondoggle is going to cost me in principle, I might as well take a ride or two.

Posted by: ceefer66 | May 7, 2007 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I note a blogger above speaks of his EZ pass battery getting weak after a few years. There are no batteries in EZ pass or Smartags. They are passive chips that reflect energy BACK to a reciever when the toll booth's transmitter directs radio waves at them. You should never have to worry about one "wearing out."

Posted by: HRCrawford | May 7, 2007 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Two comments:

1. Call VDOT immediately!!

2. Get an EZ Pass!!

One of the very incidents with the cameras happened to me just a couple of months ago. I threw in the proper change because I saw both quarters go down, but the machine only registered half. Fearing a ticket, I got to my office and IMMEDIATELY called VDOT. The lady I spoke to said to call back in 24 hours to see if a picture of my car/license plate had been taken. It had. The lady I spoke to charged me the other half of the toll ($0.25). She if I hadn't called, they would have hit me up for the whole fine.

Posted by: JB1359 | May 7, 2007 2:59 PM | Report abuse

At the Baltimore tunnels: After you hand your money to the attendent, wait for the light to turn green. This happened to my spouse. Fortunately, she had gotten a receipt.

Posted by: cb | May 7, 2007 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I have complains about the Toll Gate. Three months ago there was an inccident happened at the Toll Gate. My husband paid the toll but the light didn't turn green, and the gentleman that works there told him "IT is OK to go" But only to know that we recieved two tickets saying that he run the red light, now we have to pay. Who do I have to talk with? in regard to the tickets.
Thanks,
Reina Gomez
301-686-0245
reinagz24@yahoo.com

Posted by: Anonymous | May 7, 2007 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Andrew: YIKES! So if someone steals my plates, they may never have to pay a toll again, since I'll be charged? Not cool!

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | May 7, 2007 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Received a notice of 2 violations the other day -- one time there was no person to take money in the cash only lane -- the other time I threw in the correct amount and it did not register. I called VDOT and they were very friendly in resolving the issue -- they even helped me get an EZ pass account and waived the admin fee.

Posted by: patmatoole | May 8, 2007 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Two solutions:

1) Don't use EZPass. Put quarters in. If the light doesn't turn green, wait. Keep waiting. Who cares about the schleps behind you? Wait for that green light. Don't let anyone wave you through. Demand the green.

2) Don't use EZPass. Install the KITT (Knight Industries Two-Thousand) rotating license plate. Stop caring.

Posted by: Fredo | May 8, 2007 10:00 AM | Report abuse

This is easy. Prosecute the state for federal mail fraud and Racketeering when they send you a ticket.

Posted by: Cletus | May 8, 2007 10:27 AM | Report abuse

This is just one more of the many reasons I moved away from the DC Metro area. Seriously folks, life is more enjoyable and much easier elsewhere.

Posted by: ss | May 8, 2007 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Know what? I've had an EZ-Pass for 10 years. Used it everywhere from the Dulles Toll Road to the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the George Washington Bridge. Know how many problems I've had with it? Zero. Not one missed toll or errant violation. *shrug* Works fine for me. Oh, and those tags do have batteries - they're not passive electronics.

Posted by: PeeteyW | May 8, 2007 11:47 AM | Report abuse

tolls are such a waste of capital resources its pathetic. our government wants us to believe they are necessary for road construction, but all they really do is create jobs for skill-less workers.

Posted by: chris | May 8, 2007 12:20 PM | Report abuse

I'd really rather they raise the gas taxes and do away with the tool booths.

Posted by: Bob a Bowie | May 8, 2007 12:36 PM | Report abuse

The toll system in Orlando frequently has similar problems with the change lanes not registering, but here, even though they do have the violation cameras, you get about 3 violations a month before they send you a warning, and after that they send you a ticket. Even with that, you can still usually call and tell them that it was all from going through one of the lanes not registering and not have to pay the ticket or go through traffic court.

Posted by: Sarah | May 8, 2007 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Virginia isn't the only state with this problem. Our state toll authority also uses camera enforcement. . Many driavers get an electronic "Cruise Card" to put on their windshilds. I recently sold a my car to a friend, when I bought a new one. We were in the process of getting the license plates reassigned to our respective vehicles and tags were still on the old car. My friend simply attached the cruise card to the windshield of the car she bought from me. A few days later, I started getting daily $27 citations from the toll authority. Why? Because the tag number on the car did not match that on record for the cruise card. So I, as the registered owner, was being fined for running the tool booth. Luckily, my friend was able to take the matter up with a very helpful customer service representative at the toll authority, who dismissed the citation. What an expensive and unreliable system. I cannot help but thing that the cost of managing it far exceeds the tiny bit or revenue lost be the few who will run a toll booth.

Posted by: Frank | May 8, 2007 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Bob a Bowie:

What about us DC-metro-area motorists who never commute via the toll road?

Posted by: Motorist | May 8, 2007 1:27 PM | Report abuse

In the comments above by Tag and HRCrawford, there were a couple of points that I thought I might clear up.

The interior Flat Pack Transponder (i.e. the white EZ Pass puck that you stick on your windshield) is manufactured by Mark IV Industries; it is an active RFID tag, and according to the official specifications, it contains a lithium battery with a 10-year life expectancy, based on typical usage. Your mileage may vary. Read all about it at http://www.ivhs.com/products_services/index.htm

Yes, I really am this boring.

Posted by: Mark | May 8, 2007 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Ever wonder how the government gets away with taxing you to death, then producing fines for every little thing in the name of "road and highway funds" AND then build a toll WITH that money to CHARGE you for driving on a road YOU PAID for....

Posted by: Jason | May 8, 2007 1:38 PM | Report abuse

They don't care:

All these unmanned cameras are for one purpose; increasing revenue.

All of our city/states are so poorly run that they must generate billions in extra revenue, to fund all their pork and pay for their solid gold statues of Digg 'Em. Unfortunately, this means creating a lot of lame laws concerning traffic and issuing citations using barely functional equipment that will cite you whether you are guilty or not.

Bottom line; get rid of your corrupt officials and this stops, get people in government that know how to correctly run the government instead of padding their bank accounts.

Posted by: Soupgoblin | May 8, 2007 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Put in your money and just WAIT for the green light. If the thing malfunctions, then just sit there and wait until an attendant assures you'll get no fine if you proceed. Go ahead and back up traffic; enough snarls, and they'll have to fix it. This is one of those times when being an ass and gumming up the works is the only way to get something addressed.

Posted by: Mikee | May 8, 2007 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I imagine it would be difficult for the prosecutor to have the accuser of your crime present in court to testify against you. Why don't you guys play that angle?

Posted by: Gerald | May 8, 2007 3:01 PM | Report abuse

I used to use the toll road early in the morning ~2-4am and there were 50+ times that I would pull into the Full Service lane, the booth would be empty and I had no change only bills, so I would have to skip the toll. So I asked a toll employee one day and he said "If the bar is up and the booth is empty you can pass right through, if noone is here to provide you change you wont get in trouble for blowing through the toll." So I was blowing through the toll booths sometimes 10+ times a week. I have yet to get a ticket.....

Posted by: Travis | May 8, 2007 4:26 PM | Report abuse

What Andrew said is not exactly true. The system is not set up to "read your license plate and bill the toll to your account". We just got a ticket in the mail for rolling through the EZPass lane. The funny thing is that you can see the green light in the background flashing and see the EZPass hanging in our windshield. We returned the ticket with our EZPass account number and they will debit the $0.75 to our account...

Posted by: Ted | May 8, 2007 5:47 PM | Report abuse

I fight the system. Whenever I go to the toll booths on 267, I get out and pick up coins from the ground. (if there isn't traffic, of course). I usually come out a couple bucks ahead. I now profit from the toll system.

/take THAT vdot!

Posted by: Mark | May 8, 2007 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Just use the license plate cover that goes "opague" at the flip of a switch. Blow through the tolls, it's worth the $20 for the plate cover. Normally transparent, so it doesn't attract attention.

Posted by: Frequent Traveler | May 8, 2007 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Use pennies. They do work. I used to use them every day on my commute.

Posted by: Makem Count | May 8, 2007 8:09 PM | Report abuse

First - EZPass does have a battery, and they do run out.
Second - I think any and all camera evidence for traffic violations will get the case thrown out if you call it Heresay to the judge.

Posted by: randy | May 8, 2007 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Since having these in Dallas - We have come up with a number of different ways - but let me share with you the R I G H T W A Y -

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
http://www.photoblocker.com/www/index.html
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Then you don't have any change - Who cares !

You heard it hear - first !

Posted by: NemeSIS | May 9, 2007 5:51 PM | Report abuse

To the above comment, as noted by others, the car and the EZ Pass tag need to match.

Posted by: Andrew | May 10, 2007 1:29 PM | Report abuse

"I imagine it would be difficult for the prosecutor to have the accuser of your crime present in court to testify against you. Why don't you guys play that angle?"

This doesn't work, unfortunately, because these sorts of things are not typically considered a "crime" under the law of whichever jurisdiction (example: Montgomery County's speed camera tickets are a "civil infraction"). States do this intentionally to get around the constitutional issue you raise.

Posted by: Rich | May 11, 2007 8:06 AM | Report abuse

I just received a ticket for a toll violation similar to many described above. I paid the toll as I passed through the booth, but the booth was unmanned and the $.75 in coins (nickels and dimes) that I tossed in did not change the light from red to green. Thinking I may have miscounted, I tossed in an additional quarter and it still did not flip the light. To avoid blocking traffic, I proceeded on. I have now received in the mail a ticket for $25.75. I intend to fight this as I did not violate the law. Is anyone reading this tech-savy enough to set up an online petition that can be signed by other innocent ticket receivers? It would be helpful to have this in order to fight the system.

Posted by: Tysons-area attorney | May 14, 2007 2:50 PM | Report abuse

After five run-ins with malfunctioning toll lane cameras (out of over 200 trips), and a 27 dollar fine, I bought an EZ-pass unit. I wrote a letter to VDot to request the waiver of the fine based upon malfunctioning toll lane cameras. VDot appears to have waived the fine, but has charged me for the tolls (which means I paid twice for the five infractions due to malfunctioning equipment). Even the faxing of a receipt that proves I paid for one of the violations did not appear to have helped. I do resent giving VDot my credit card number for EzPass. I'm concerned that their data security is as bad as their automated camera equipment. But I also can't put up with the toll lane camera-breakage nonsense. I think tens-of-thousands of people will start getting the fines in the mail soon. The readers of this blog are probably among the first to realize what is happening. Lots of people have probably accidentally thrown the first fine away since the envelope looks like junk mail. If they've thrown the first letter away, there is probably little chance to receive a waiver. I think the waiver must be requested within 30 days of receipt of the fine. Here's what I've learned from all of this--VDot has to make money. VDot Management bonuses are probably tied to this. VDot has no incentive to fix the toll lane cameras. If you see an envelope labeled "SmartPass-- EzPass", open it up-- it's probably your fine. There is a chance you can get it waived if you respond promptly. But to get the second set of toll-booth charges waived, you'll probably have to spend more in postage stamps than what the second charges are worth. If you give them your credit card for EZ-Pass, you might be taking a chance on potentially poor data security.

Posted by: Frank | May 18, 2007 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I note that in cases that I have heard about where the fine has been waived--the condition is that the driver purchase an EZ-Pass machine. VDOT seems to be using these tickets to force people into purchasing EZ-Pass machines. That is not right. Incentives are fine--like offering a discount on tolls to those who have EZ Pass--coersion is not fine.

Posted by: Concerned Citizen | May 20, 2007 7:47 AM | Report abuse

I note that in cases that I have heard about where the fine has been waived--the condition is that the driver purchase an EZ-Pass machine. VDOT seems to be using these tickets to force people into purchasing EZ-Pass machines. That is not right. Incentives are fine--like offering a discount on tolls to those who have EZ Pass--coersion is not fine.

Posted by: Concerned Citizen | May 20, 2007 7:47 AM | Report abuse

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