The Harris County Toll Road Authority is nabbing drivers who owe thousands of dollars in tolls using a new technology that signals when repeat offenders enter the tollway.
Cameras stationed at busy toll lanes send e-mail alerts to county dispatchers when one of the top 500 scofflaws - who owe between $2,000 and $30,000 - drives through an EZ Tag lane without paying.
Most cameras stationed on toll roads take photos of vehicles that fail to pay upon entering, so the county can mail them tickets.
The new cameras contain software listing top violators' license numbers so when one of those vehicles is photographed skipping a toll, a dispatcher at a control center receives a real-time message and can alert an officer in the area.
"Instead of relying on patrol vehicles to drive around, it puts all the traffic through the filter and finds the wanted vehicle," said Jim Tuton, CEO of American Traffic Solutions Inc., which runs the camera system for the county.
The list of license plates identified by the cameras can be changed at any time, which makes the technology useful for other purposes as well, including tracking stolen vehicles.
Look, as with the red light cameras, I don't have a philosophical problem with using technology in place of traffic cops to help enforce the law. There's no right to skip paying tolls any more than there's a right to run red lights. What concerns me here is the same thing that concerns me there: What controls exist over the data that those cameras are collecting? Who has access to it? How long is it kept on somebody's servers? What about backups?
It's the scope creep that's worrisome. Nobody objects to recovering stolen cars, but what are those "other purposes", and who gets to suggest new ones? What if anything can the Harris County Toll Road Authority do that the City of Houston cannot?
Oh, and in case you're wondering how anyone can rack up $30K in unpaid tolls:
The technology allows deputies to focus on catching repeat violators while they're still on the toll road illegally so they can be arrested and charged criminally. Scofflaws tracked down at home, where they have ignored ticket after mailed ticket, face only civil charges.
Drivers can be caught on camera twice with no penalty. The third violation in a year results in a fine including the amount of the unpaid tolls, plus an administrative fee for each violation. More fees are added once the bill is turned over to a collection agency or court.
So frequent violators can end up owing thousands of dollars, as much as 10 times what the tolls would have cost.