They threatened to revoke my license over a 20-cent transgression I'd already paid!
|Back in mid-October of 2002, my husband Andy borrowed my Ford Taurus to drive to work. His truck was in the shop for the day, and since I stay at home with our baby, I relinquished my car to him.
Andy’s everyday route to work involves a short stint on the New York State Thruway, and the toll for this ride is twenty cents. Lucky for him, the benevolent Thruway Authority provides something they like to call E-Z Pass, wherein you place a sensor square on your windshield and are given permission to proceed through a special toll lane, sans human operator. A machine reads the sensor and charges your account, ostensibly saving the Capital Region’s commuters time by allowing them to glide through the lane (at a leisurely 5 mph) without stopping. Andy has one of these sensor squares stuck to the windshield of his truck, and every morning he habitually drives through the E-Z Pass lane.
My car, however, is not equipped with a sensor square, since I rarely venture onto the Thruway for any reason. Unfortunately, on the day Andy borrowed my car, his Morning Commute Autopilot led him through the forbidden E-Z Pass lane. So, instead of the usual “have a nice day” green light, Andy was molested by a parentally angry red light. Here, the meat of my story begins:
Realizing his mistake, Andy pulls over to the side of the road and, dodging oncoming cars in the morning chill, jogs to a manned tollbooth.
“I forgot I had my wife’s car today,” he explains sheepishly. “Sorry about that.”
The tollbooth operator replies that Andy will have to get a special ticket stub from the booth when he exits the Thruway, and then send it in with payment.
“But the payment is only twenty cents,” Andy protests. “Can’t I just give them the twenty cents at the tollbooth when I get off the Thruway?”
Turns out Andy’s wild, illegal ride through the E-Z Pass lane set off its taxpayer-funded camera, which took a sharp, clear picture of the license plate. If Andy simply handed over the twenty cents, therefore, there’d be no way to tell the camera that he’d remitted the two valuable dimes, and my white 93 Taurus would be rendered a marked car.
So, Andy procures the special ticket stub from the next tollbooth operator; that evening he writes out a check to the New York State Thruway Authority for exactly twenty cents. He and I joke about how it will cost us more than that just to mail the damn thing, but mail it we do, because we are among the honest and upright citizens of the great state of New York.
Perhaps a month or so goes by, and one day a letter comes from the Thruway Authority, addressed to me: You have committed a toll evasion violation and must remit $33.30 immediately. That’s $8.30 (presumably the toll from the farthest exit) plus a $25 administrative fee.
Andy and I laugh. Surely they jest. On the bill there's a toll-free number to contact the sinister-sounding Violation Processing Center, and Andy dials this number to explain the mistake. The overpaid state employee who answers the phone pretends to listen to Andy’s lengthy story and ultimately requests from him a copy of the canceled twenty cent check.
“My bank doesn’t send me any canceled checks,” says Andy. “I get a bank statement at the end of each month and it lists the checks that cleared.”
The state employee’s tired voice tells Andy to fax a copy of the bank statement to her at whatever number, with a cover letter explaining the situation.
We drag out my half-busted, dusty fax machine and we dig through our papers for the bank statement and we hand-write a cover letter to these people. We plug the fax machine into the hallway phone jack and shoo away baby Jonah, who has phone cord radar and is happily reaching for the whole mess. After faxing everything successfully, we shake our heads in mild disgust, return to our Seinfeld re-run, and consider the matter closed. Finally.
Imagine our joy when, thirty days or so later, 2003 is ushered in with yet another letter. This letter has the words “SECOND NOTICE” emblazoned across its stark white front: You have failed to remit payment for violation # T200211059815-0001 (yes, the number is really that long) and said payment is expected immediately.
Now Andy is mad. “What the hell?” he asks the universe. Once more he calls the phone number and relates his ridiculous, ever-lengthening tale. This time the representative tells him to write a letter of explanation and return it with the notice itself.
Andy, tongue planted firmly in cheek, sits down and pens a brilliantly sarcastic diatribe in which he questions the intelligence of a system that hunts down its twenty cent offenders as if they were bank robbers. He also manages to squeeze in all about how we’d already paid the toll and sent in the special ticket stub and received a payment notice in error and faxed over our checking account statement with requested cover letter. To this letter he adds envelope and stamp, and as it is mailed, both of us utter a prayer to the gods of the New York State Thruway Authority to please, please accept our sacrifice and rain upon us both favor and goodwill.
The gods, however, were apparently less than pleased with our measly offering and our weak-willed supplication, for yesterday, yet another envelope from this attentive government agency dropped through our mail slot and into my unwilling hands. This one was very stern and surprisingly verbose. Among other things, it said:
FINAL NOTICE. You have failed to respond to two previous notifications for toll evasion violation(s) in the Thruway E-Z Pass toll lanes. As a result, the New York State Thruway Authority must demand IMMEDIATE PAYMENT IN FULL. Failure to comply with this request could result in the Thruway Authority taking additional action against you. If we do not receive your payment, your vehicle license plate number and identification information will be placed on a special listing for toll evasion enforcement. Failure to pay the violation fee allows for the suspension of your vehicle registration by the Department of Motor Vehicles or the ability to operate your vehicle in New York State.
At this point Andy and I are seriously questioning whether it would be worth paying the $33.30 they so tenaciously demand just to get the monkeys off our back. We’re not rich, but we could certainly afford to toss $33.30 to these determined Mafiosi. Maybe, just maybe, this time they’ll actually acknowledge the check, cash it, and leave us the hell alone for evermore.
Wait! What are we saying? The amount they are asking for is 166 ½ times the amount Andy has already paid for committing this utterly egregious offense. To back down after all we’ve fought for would be a betrayal of both principle and sanity.
And yet it’s tempting. Suppose my license and/or registration does get revoked. How do we get my car back on the road? By paying the original $33.30 fee plus the inevitable compounded interest and service charge? Or do we instead retain a late-night television-ad attorney and take on the New York State Thruway Authority over our twenty cent transgression? Should I place my baby in day care so I can make the court dates?
I have a sinking feeling that eventually we will pay them what they demand. Our Bonnie and Clyde days were fun while they lasted, but I think now it's time to retire from the criminal life. After all, we’re obviously no good at it.
We can’t even make away with a measly twenty cents.
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**** Exciting Footnote ****
February 14, 2003
I decided to blanket-e-mail this essay to several news media in my area (Albany, NY) and am happy to report that a TV news crew is coming to my house on Tuesday to do a feature piece on Andy and me. Also, a local newspaper columnist is working on a piece about us as well.
I called the Public Information Officer at the Thruway Authority and sweetly told the secretary that I'd just gathered several interested media to my cause.
Two hours later I received a phone call from the Assistant Operations Manager at EZ Pass. In the kind of respectful tone usually reserved for bosses or heads of state, this man apologized profusely on behalf of the Thruway Authority and gave me his personal guarantee that the matter is ended here; in fact I am supposedly going to receive written notification of said guarantee.
I thanked him kindly and told him I'm still doing the news stories, though. It's a matter of too little, too late.
The news story aired locally on Thursday, February 20th, 2003.
February 22, 2003
Received in the mail today a notice from the Thruway Authority telling me that my "violation" has been dismissed.
Three days later: The same news station announces EZ-Pass's decision to change its procedure regarding cars who make the same mistake Andy did.
We have effected change!