Toll road blunder demonstrates fallibility of unchecked computer systems

Quimby Mug Bayou Florida
Updated Sep 16, 2021
There's apparently no confirmation process in place at the Florida Department of Transportation to ensure the validity of auto-generated toll invoices. As a result, you may end up with an erroneous bill like me. The license plate in this photo FDOT sent me isn't exactly legible but that didn't stop them from sending me a bill for passing through their toll on State Road 91 in Central Florida.
There's apparently no confirmation process in place at the Florida Department of Transportation to ensure the validity of auto-generated toll invoices. As a result, you may end up with an erroneous bill like me. The license plate in this photo FDOT sent me isn't exactly legible but that didn't stop them from sending me a bill for passing through their toll on State Road 91 in Central Florida.
Florida Department of Transportation

I think it’s universally understood that one of the worst pieces of mail you can get is a toll enforcement invoice.

It’s not so much the toll charge that offends. It’s the photo of the law-breaking vehicle—yours—along with the date of the crime, toll location and the amount you owe for the toll plus an administration fee.

Yep, that’s my truck. I might as well be waving and smiling at the camera as I fly on by.

Having lived in Florida long enough to remember when a politician could drum up votes by wearing a coon skin cap (a tactic Governor Lawton Chiles employed in the early 90s which would probably get him eviscerated on social media today), I’ve become somewhat familiar with these pesky toll roads.

[Related: Truckers still using Rhode Island tolls despite threats to drive around state]

I say somewhat because where we live in Northwest Florida, we have to travel an hour before we encounter a toll at the Mid Bay Bridge—a 3.6-mile short-cut on State Road 293 that takes you right into the heart of Destin, a popular tourist destination where boats, condos, restaurants and various attractions may outnumber the residents.

For anyone familiar with the area, the Mid Bay Bridge provides a scenic look at Choctawhatchee Bay and Destin itself. The $4 toll gets a two-axle vehicle into the Gulf Coast city while another $4 gets it out—that is, unless the driver opts to travel U.S. 98 to the next northern route.

The nearly 30-year-old bridge can reel in some revenue. Roughly 6.6 million vehicles generated $19.6 million in toll revenue for fiscal year 2020 according to the Mid Bay Bridge Authority’s annual report. It’s no wonder the bridge has its own website.

[Related: GPS doesn't always know best as drivers destroy historic bridges]

Revenue like that also reminds us that when a toll road opens, it typically never closes no matter the number of times it’s paid for itself. After all, government’s not exactly known for choking off its revenue streams, even if it’s a measly $3.84, the amount billed to me in a toll invoice that arrived in the mail this week.

“Dad, this doesn’t look good,” my 15-year-old son said just a moment before handing me the letter he had retrieved from the mailbox.

The Florida Department of Transportation makes it clear what their letter is all about. Too bad such attention to detail doesn't extend throughout their invoice department.The Florida Department of Transportation makes it clear what their letter is all about. Too bad such attention to detail doesn't extend throughout their invoice department.Florida Department of TransportationSeeing the return address of the Florida Department of Transportation is an attention-getter since they’re not exactly known for pumping out junk mail with condo timeshare offers. But if that’s not enough to convince you to tear open that letter, then the large message printed on the center of the envelope will: TOLL ENFORCEMENT INVOICE…PLEASE OPEN IMMEDIATELY.

So I did, with my son standing close by eager to see the state’s stinging rebuke inside. It had been a few years since I had last gotten one of these. Those who are only somewhat familiar with the spaghetti toll system in Central Florida like me can tell you that unless you’re really paying attention, it’s fairly easy to breeze past some highway checkpoints especially at night. No worries. The state will snap a picture of your vehicle and send you an invoice like mine.

After opening up the bad news, my eyes immediately fell on the fuzzy, black and white photo of a silver pickup with a black bed cover. Dang! Foiled again. They got me. Surely the state’s unblinking camera working in tandem with an omniscient, digital universe had gotten their man once again.

Only they hadn’t.

“Dad, that’s not your truck,” my son said.

He was right. The color appeared to be a match along with the four-door cab and bed cover. But there was no sunroof and the badging on the tailgate, though pretty tough to make out in the photo as you can see, indicated a different make.

“What the heck?!” or words to that effect were heard uttered by the writer whose persistent hopes for reason and justice remain alive and well despite the proliferation of indifferent data bases which at times appear determined to relegate life to a binary blink.

It wasn’t just the photo that was wrong. It was also the time and place. I had been nowhere near this toll in Central Florida for the time posted.

But the toughest part was that they had gotten the license plate correct. It’s mine. There’s no denying that. However, it’s for my other truck that’s only driven from time to time and mostly remains parked on a remote part of the property—and it looks nothing like the truck in the photo above. That got me thinking that someone may have gotten past the raccoons, ticks and poison ivy and made off with my license plate.

So in the dark of night, I found myself hopelessly wishing my golf cart would go 80mph as I raced off to check the old truck and fight off flashbacks of Dateline’s Keith Morrison. What’s my next move if someone yanked my plate and is off racking up Florida Man headlines in a truck that resembles mine? I’ll have to call the police and let them know ASAP.

As I high-stepped towards the back of the old beater, I thought, ‘That plate’s going to be gone. I don’t need this drama now or ever.’

But there it was. I’ve never been so thrilled to see a license plate. I took a picture of it and realized that either FDOT’s system made a mistake or someone duplicated my plate. Being familiar with the inefficiencies of bureaucracies accustomed to running on autopilot, I’m definitely leaning towards the former.

A quick visit to the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles website confirmed that the plate in question is in good standing and currently assigned only to the old beater on the lower forty. It’s too bad, I thought, how the state’s digitized realm issues invoices with no confirmation process in place.

Also, it looks like the camera at this particular toll isn’t up to the task. Another toll invoice I received a while back from FDOT clearly showed my vehicle and license plate. This one’s so fuzzy that it looks like the computer defaulted to a lottery process to determine the lucky winner.

My next step was to contact FDOT and contest the invoice. If you’ve ever heard the absolutely depressing music the state plays while you’re on hold then you’ll understand why I skipped out on the estimated 63-minute hold time—yes, 63 minutes—and followed the bot’s advice of using their website. I don’t know anyone who could have muscled through 63 minutes of that music which, I realize, could very well be the most clever ploy ever pulled off by a government agency to fend off concerned callers.

So I went to their website, clicked through the options, disputed the invoice and clicked submit. I got 12-digit long confirmation number in return and now await eagerly await their reply and hope in the interim that Florida Man doesn’t blow through another toll with a shoddy camera and HAL-like computer that incorrectly chooses either you or me as the offending party.