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Despite years of debate, emergency vehicles are still being charged tolls.

30 November, 2007
The vague rules about which emergency vehicles should be charged bridge and road tolls and under what circumstances continue to cause hold ups while emergency service personnel argue with toll booth operators and supervisors.
The US Transportation Corridors Agency has just released information concerning the controversy surrounding a fire tender being charged a toll in San Diego. The findings of the agency was that it was fine to levy the charge because it happened 2 days before the Orange County fires began and that the tender wasn't on an emergency call at the time. During the California fires of October, all tolls for fire fighting vehicles were waived on 4 local toll routes.

The CEO of the agency, Tom Margro, went on to clarify that some police and sheriff departments and the Orange County fire brigade have toll-free access some of the time, such as maintenance and emergency response and that each case is handled on an individual basis â€" great clarification, thanks Tom.

The situation is equally vague in the UK although things improved after two high profile incidents concerning ambulance vehicles held at toll booths during the last couple of years. The problem concerns clarity, particularly concerning the definition of an emergency vehicle. In the 2005 incident on the Forth Bridge toll, the paramedic vehicle was judged not to be an ambulance because it didn't have ambulance written on the side and it wasn't big enough to carry sick people.

So what is an ambulance? Paramedic vehicles are small, nimble and packed with equipment needed to save lives when arriving at an incident before anyone else. Granted, it can't carry sick people. What about St John's Ambulances? They don't respond to emergencies but they have ambulance written on the side of them.

The same applies to the fire service. Not every fire service vehicle looks like a big red lorry with lights and ladders, there are incident support vehicles and supervisor cars so which ones have to pay tolls?

Finally, there are police vehicles. Many motorway patrol vehicles are un-liveried but the occupants first priorities are the protection of life and property so if there's an incident, they have to switch off their radar and respond. Are the strobe lights in the vehicle grille enough to let the toll booth operators know its an exempt vehicle?

The UK Government policy regarding this was set as far back as 1999 where it stated that it was considered inappropriate to charge tolls on vehicles used by the emergency services. This statement presumably includes the Coast Guard and Mountain Rescue vehicles but probably not St John's and other private ambulances. Unfortunately, each toll is governed by its own legal document which is separately drawn up, could contain any number of ambiguities and is generally imprecise.

Imprecise rules will always lead to confusion, delays and controversy but there are ways to overcome it. The M6 toll in the UK midlands, like many tolls, uses a tagging system for subscribers and having vehicles used by emergency services tagged would solve many of the problems of identifying exempt vehicles. Automatic Number Plate Recognition is also a technology that is available that is suited to this application. If in doubt, let the vehicle through and catch up with them later if they're liable to pay. This system works for the London congestion charge so I don't see why it shouldn't work for toll roads.

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