Imagine being slapped with a $50,000 fine for outstanding tolls – and being told you could face prison if you fail to pay.
It might sound outrageous, but this is the situation confronting dozens of Victorian motorists each year – with many issued warrants to appear in court.
But while desperate families struggle to pay off fines and associated costs, the state government is raking in the profits – figures recently published by Fairfax Media show that in 2014/2015, $687 million in toll warrants were issued by the Sheriff’s Office – up 15% from the previous year, and 80% since 2012.
How Does This Happen?
It might seem strange that a five dollar toll can turn into a fine worth tens of thousands of dollars – so how does it happen?
A recent piece by Melbourne’s ‘The Age’ Newspaper explained that if a person fails to pay a toll (eg if their e-tag does not work, or they don’t own one) they are initially sent a toll notice for around $15. The extra $10 or so is often classified as an ‘administrative cost.’
If the person fails to respond to the initial toll notice within a certain period of time, a second ‘final’ toll notice is issued for around $25 – around five times the cost of the original toll.
If the toll remains unpaid for whatever reason, the owner is issued with an infringement notice by Victoria Police and Civic Compliance Victoria for $148 – a huge price to pay for a $5 toll.
A second ‘penalty reminder’ notice for $172.50 is then issued if it is not paid within a specified period of time – including $24.50 in late fees.
If the penalty reminder notice is ignored, an enforcement order can be issued by the courts for a whopping $254.10.
Finally, if that order is ignored, the courts can issue a warrant requiring the vehicle owner to attend court, and imposing a fee of $313.90.
Bearing in mind that the above fines apply to just a single toll, it is easy to see how these fines can quickly add up for a person who uses toll roads daily.
What’s more, a person might be completely unaware that anything is amiss until they are issued with a warrant to attend court.
Georgia Sharp, a Melbourne woman hit with over $50,000 in fines for unpaid toll, explained that she forgot to pay because of various stressors that were going on in her life at the time.
She recently had her first baby and was battling postnatal depression – and to make matters worse, her partner was diagnosed with cancer soon after.
It transpired that her partner – originally from New Zealand – had used her car to commute to and from work, and was unaware that tolls applied on the roads he was travelling on.
Georgia and her partner then moved house – so they never received the toll notices or reminders, and continued to clock up even more over several months.
Thankfully, the magistrate was persuaded to greatly reduce the fines to $1200 – but that is still a huge sum for the young family.
The Situation in NSW
As reported in a previous blog, NSW drivers cannot directly be sent to prison for non payment of fines. However, failure to pay fines can result in a community service order, the breach of which can certainly lead to a prison sentence. The non-payment of fines can also result in hefty ‘administrative’ fees, penalty notices, licence suspensions and cancellations.
According to the Roads and Maritime Services website, vehicle owners who travel without an e-tag, and fail to pay the relevant toll soon after travelling, will receive a toll notice in the mail. They will be given 28 days to pay the toll.
A $1.10 administration fee, in addition to the toll, is charged for those who own an e-tag. For those who do not have an e-tag, the administration fee is $10.
If the toll remains unpaid, a Final Toll Notice is sent which charges an administration charge of $20. If that is ignored, a Penalty Notice for over $165 is sent to out.
Finally, an enforcement order can be issued by the State Debt Recovery Office for any unpaid fines. If this remains unpaid, the RMS can suspend or cancel the vehicle owner’s licence or registration.
This illustrates how a small road toll can quickly turn into a disaster for someone who has not received or paid their notices. If they fail to update their address on time and the tolls remain unpaid, they may never receive the notice of suspension or licence cancellation.
If they then continue driving, they may be charged with driving while suspended and face the prospect of a criminal record and lengthy disqualification.
In other cases, the matter can be referred to a debt collection agency which may result in garnishment of pay by taking money from the vehicle owner’s bank account, and a bad credit rating.
A Need for Reform?
Drivers caught up in these situations argue that the toll system is unfair and should be changed.
But calls for change have largely ignored by the government – as have proposals to impose a single administrative fee for all toll notices.
Experts say that imposing disproportionate fines on those already struggling with personal stressors will not encourage them to pay their tolls on time – rather, ‘the bigger the amount, the less they are inclined to face it.’
The government has defended its tolling system, saying that ‘99% of road users pay their tolls on time,’ and pointing out that it is up to motorists to know the relevant tolls, and to change their address with the RMS as required by law.
The Victorian Greens have called for an inquiry into toll debts, but there is no indication as that any such review will eventuate.