Driver Privacy and Electronic Tolling
My recent posts have explored ways to connect paying for road maintenance with the damage drivers’ vehicles inflict upon roads (rather than with the amount and type of fuel those vehicles consume). Having covered odometer readings and GPS tracking, I’ll turn now to tolling.
Modern tolling is electronic rather than using traditional stop-and-go toll booths. Drivers have transponders that send a signal that is picked up at certain checkpoints along the road. Payments can either be deducted from an online account with the tolling organization, or drivers can receive a bill in the mail. For drivers without a transponder, license plate photos direct the tolling organization—whether state-run or private—where to mail the bill.
Electronic tolling is widely employed in several states, and each new state that adopts the technology benefits from the years of experience gained by the others. Missouri would not have to reinvent the wheel should tolling be adopted here.
The main privacy concern with electronic tolling is whether transponders remain active outside of toll roads on which they are meant to be used—as could happen if the state transportation department wanted to use the transponders to collect traffic flow data (for example, to inform decisions about adding lanes in congested areas).
One method by which states have attempted to mitigate this concern is by allowing anonymous transponder accounts, where data is stripped of personal information and reported by an internal account number. Again, though, drivers who aren’t comfortable with having a transponder in their car could still have bills sent to them via mail based on their license plate.
Ultimately, the current fuel tax system of funding road maintenance is becoming less viable, as the increasing popularity of electronic vehicles renders fuel taxes less effective and more unfair. Policymakers can begin the transition to road-usage charges, but this will require balancing the efficiency and accuracy of various measurement options while also respecting the privacy of motorists.