Paying tolls is bad enough, but what about getting stuck with another driver’s charges?
The NBC10 Boston Investigators discovered it can happen because of license plate confusion, thanks to the growing number of specialty plates appearing on roadways throughout Massachusetts.
The problem is some of the tags appear to be almost identical, which can create some costly cases of mistaken identity.
Just ask Lucy Woodward. The low-number license plate on her Nissan Altima is almost like a family heirloom.
“It’s significant because it belonged to my great-grandfather,” Woodward explained.
Like a lot of drivers, Woodward assumed her license plate was almost like a fingerprint for her car. A unique identifier that shows it belongs to her.
However, back in April, Woodward started getting toll violations for a road trip she never took. Sixteen different bills arrived at her Scituate home from states like New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and Virginia.
The charges drove up a price tag of more than $400.
“It’s frustrating. I would get furious every time a new one came in,” Woodward told the NBC10 Boston Investigators. “I finally got mad enough that I called you!”
The plate on Woodward’s Nissan is Massachusetts 1557. Some of the violations included a photo of a Honda, also with Massachusetts 1557.
“It’s too easy for this mistake to happen,” Woodward expressed. “It needs to be corrected.”
From sports teams to military service, fighting cancer to protecting the environment, there are more than 40 specialty plates in Massachusetts.
A spokesperson from the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) acknowledged the numeric sequence on some plates might be the same. However, the RMV said there are symbols and alphabetic sequences (like the stacked “RS” in Red Sox plates) that set them apart.
Bottom line: the agency argues there are no duplicate plates.
“I disagree with them,” said Rep. William Straus, chair of the legislature’s transportation committee.
Straus said he regularly hears from constituents facing the same dilemma, sometimes on repeated occasions. The incidents are likely increasing as more states adopt electronic tolling technology and capture images of license plates.
“I think it’s an issue that through stories like yours, more people will become aware of,” the state lawmaker said.
But aside from the headache of mistaken tolls, Straus worries about plate confusion during a public safety emergency like a kidnapping.
“If the plate readers get them wrong, eyewitnesses will get them wrong,” he said. “We’re creating the problem by having the same identical basic number sequence on several different plates issued by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
MassDOT said it does not have a way to track how often toll violations are appealed based on the specialty plate confusion.
“We urge all Massachusetts drivers with transponders to check their bills regularly to make sure charges are accurate, similar to what customers do when they receive credit card, bank, and other financial statements,” wrote MassDOT spokeswoman Jacque Goddard.
Straus said if the agency does not already cross-reference specialty plates to avoid the same basic numeric sequence, he would consider legislation to require it.
The NBC10 Boston Investigators tracked down the driver who has the similar license plate as Woodward in Alexandria, Virginia.
“I feel awful she had to deal with this,” said the driver, who declined to be identified. “I can definitely see how it happened, though. Unless you’re in a state that does the same type of coding, you wouldn’t know my license plate actually starts with ‘NG’ for National Guard instead of just 1557.”
The driver offered to reimburse Woodward for any toll violations she’d mistakenly paid on his behalf. He also said he’d consider turning in his specialty plate and getting a standard one to avoid a repeat occurrence.
The NBC10 Boston Investigators contacted tolling agencies in other states and helped Woodward clear up all the violations. However, she is concerned about steering through the same bureaucracy the next time a driver with a similar plate hits the road.
“They should avoid using the same numbers because of what I’m going through,” she expressed. “And I’m sure there are other people who have gone through the same thing.”
Ryan Kath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.