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Who taught YOU to drive?

Failure to pay up takes a toll

Drivers using the Tobin Bridge who can't pay the $3 toll can expect a $50 fine. Those who had no cash used to be able to send in the toll when they got home, but people abused the honor system. Drivers using the Tobin Bridge who can't pay the $3 toll can expect a $50 fine. Those who had no cash used to be able to send in the toll when they got home, but people abused the honor system. (George Rizer/Globe Staff/File 2007)
By Peter DeMarco
April 26, 2009
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Ashleigh Hegedus hadn't planned on reaching the Tobin Bridge's toll booths without a dime on her. But when a gas station couldn't process her credit card, she spent all the cash she had. And since she was new to Boston, she had never driven across the bridge before.

"I didn't realize there was a toll," she said.

Hegedus, an emergency room resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, offered to pay the $3 toll with a credit card. But Massport, which operates the bridge, doesn't accept charge cards. (Imagine the waiting lines.)

She next offered to send in the money as soon as she got home. Massport used to allow drivers to do that, but too many people abused the honor system.

"Only about half of the owed tolls were collected," said Massport spokeswoman Lisa Langone.

Instead, the toll booth officer handed Hegedus a violation information statement and told her to expect a $50 ticket in the mail.

"I've never even gotten a speeding ticket. I was really horrified," said Hegedus. "Hopefully by talking about this, someone else won't make the same mistake I did."

Toll booths have been a newsy item lately, with this month's Easter backups and the state moving to dismantle the financially troubled Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. But politics aren't our concern: We're interested in the rules of the road, and in this case, that means toll booth dos and don'ts.

Many of us have been in Hegedus's position, searching through seat cushions and cup holders for spare change to make the toll. Had Hegedus been at a toll booth operated by the Turnpike Authority instead of Massport, she would have been handed an envelope and told to mail in her toll within 14 days. (If she didn't, a $250 ticket for evading tolls would have followed.)

Likewise, had Hegedus been crossing the Tobin Bridge just six weeks earlier, she would not have gotten a ticket. Prior to March 1, first-time offenders were given 21 days to mail in $6 for their missed toll. (Double the usual amount to cover processing fees.) Only second-time offenders received $50 tickets.

But as Langone said, too many people were abusing the system. The hassle involved with tracking down people for their $6 - lots of offenders are out-of-towners in rental cars - was proving costly.

"The policy changed to help with cost-recovery efforts involved in processing more than 1,000 offenses a month. We hand out 45 tickets a day to people who drive up to the toll and have no funds," Langone said.

Turnpike officials didn't say how many offenses occur each month, but with ATM machines available at rest stops, it's likely a lot fewer.

So, what are some other toll booth rules? Cameras will catch you in the act, but if you're foolish enough to blow through a cash-only lane without paying, the fine is $250 and you could be subject to arrest, police said.

Interestingly, if you go through a Fast Lane without paying - either you don't have a transponder, or yours just doesn't work - you'll be caught on camera and mailed a $50 ticket generated by TransCore, the agency that monitors Fast Lane. This sounds like the same offense as evading a cash toll, but the penalties are different, officials said.

Call me paranoid, but I'm always a bit worried about getting in the wrong lane at a toll plaza. It's against the law to back up while at a toll booth - technically, it's the same violation as driving the wrong way on a highway, even if you're only traveling 10 feet backwards - so if you accidentally end up in the wrong lane, you're supposed to continue through, even if you can't pay cash or don't have a Fast Lane transponder.

The rule exists to prevent accidents, potentially fatal ones, said Lieutenant Brian Menton of State Police Troop E, which patrols the Mass Pike. But police aren't out to get you if you find yourself in a difficult position and act with reason and common sense, he said. ("Every situation is different.")

As for speeding rules, I can't help but think of my Uncle Jack, who used to revel in chucking coins into an exact-change bucket without so much as touching the brake. Alas, the Turnpike Authority has done away with its change buckets, and by law you must lower your speed to 15 miles per hour when approaching a highway toll plaza or the Tobin's tolls. If not, you could get a speeding ticket of at least $100. (An officer would still have to observe you speeding because toll plazas don't have automatic radar guns, police said.)

Lastly, I wanted to know whether you can get in trouble for unbuckling your seat belt at the tolls while searching for your wallet, something I often do.

"Well, it's not exactly unheard of to be rear-ended while stopped at a toll booth," one officer reminded me.

Point taken.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com.

Clarification: An April 26 "Who Taught YOU to Drive?" column about ticketing policies for people unable to pay the Tobin Bridge toll did not clearly state that between Sept. 1, 2006, and March 1, 2009, first-time violators were issued a $50 ticket that could be settled if a payment of $6 (double the toll amount to cover processing costs) was mailed to Massport within 21 days of the date of the violation notice. Since March 1, the 21-day grace period has been rescinded, and first-time toll violators are immediatedly responsible for the $50 ticket.