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Moving violations lead to brush with new technology

December 10, 2006|by KATE COLEMAN

OK. I surrender. I'm signing up for E-ZPass.

In case you don't know what that is, I'll explain: E-ZPass is an electronic toll-collection system operating in 11 Northeastern states. It eliminates cash, coins and those tickets with incredibly tiny print from the process of paying turnpike tolls.

You pay in advance and you are issued a "transponder" - an innocent-looking electronic device that you affix to your windshield. It apparently transmits an electrical signal when it somehow "sees" the thing it's supposed to see in the specially marked lanes at the tollbooths, and you glide on through.

I'm all for progress and convenience, but I gotta tell you, I'm not crazy about the idea of having something called a "transponder" in my car. I don't read science fiction and I've never watched even a single episode of "Star Trek." Transponder sounds just a little too futuristic, a bit too "Brave New World" for me.

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I didn't mind when automatic coin collection devices at tollbooths were installed eons ago, replacing countless human toll-takers. In fact, those devices were the source of one of my greatest childhood thrills - riding New Jersey's Garden State Parkway with my law-abiding-but-always-pushing-the-envelope Uncle Jimmy. He'd pay the 25-cent toll, but he'd race the red light to get out of the gate before it turned green. My cousins and I would cheer when he succeeded.

I, a "goody two shoes" all my life, never would intentionally or consciously violate a traffic law.

My few brushes with authority have been totally unintentional. One day, when I was commuting to a fresh-out-of-college job in downtown Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s, a very polite man tapped on my driver's-side window as our cars stood in Massachusetts Avenue morning gridlock.

In what was literally a bumper-to-bumper situation, I had nudged his pale blue Volkswagen bug with my car, a Chevy Vega (remember those?). The bump was slight but enough to wake me from the doze I apparently had slipped into.

"Did I hit you or did you back into me?" I actually asked.

I got my first speeding ticket on a Saturday morning - my 37th birthday - in the 30 mph zone in front of South Hagerstown High School. I was only a tiny, tiny bit over the speed limit, and as I accepted the citation, I told the police officer that it was my first violation in 20 years of driving. I think I made him feel bad; he told me I might be able to have the fine reduced because of my previously flawless record.

I've had only two other excess-velocity moving violations in my life. Friends who have ridden with me and made fun of how slowly I usually drive would find that hard to believe.

E-ZPass has become my nemesis. Returning from helping my daughter move into her apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., Labor Day weekend, I must have gotten in an E-ZPass lane after crossing onto Staten Island. I swear there was no sign. I didn't even realize I had done anything wrong until the ticket from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey arrived in my Hagerstown mailbox a few weeks later.

The policy is gentle. I had only to pay the $6 toll I had not when I breezed through. The fine for my first offense was waived.

I was not so lucky a month later. This time I thought I was OK. I carefully noted that I needed to "Stay Right" for the cash lanes.

However, I did not stay far-enough right and found myself in an E-ZPass lane without, of course, a freakin' transponder.

I did what I had to do: I thought of Uncle Jimmy, I smiled and I zoomed on through.

Kate Coleman writes a monthly Lifestyle column and covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for The Herald-Mail.

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