Orange County toll roads

Orange County's toll roads have gone to a cashless system. (Los Angeles Times / July 7, 2014)

Like many other toll roads across the nation, those in Orange County have gone cashless. Motorists who aren't equipped with a transponder are supposed to set up an online credit card account with the Transportation Corridor Agencies — their license plates are read automatically and their accounts charged accordingly — but those who don't can still pay the toll online within 48 hours.

The toll road agency has done a less than thorough job of introducing the new system, however, and as a result the number of violations has spiked. To its credit, the agency has instituted a grace period of a few months during which it's using Department of Motor Vehicles records to identify first-time errant drivers, notifying them of the violation by mail but charging them only the toll they would have paid anyway.

Nevertheless, the agency has created a potentially dangerous situation. Drivers are slowing where there used to be toll plazas, which have been replaced by multiple signs that try to explain the new system. The signs are confusing — in fairness, this isn't an easy change to explain in a few words — and an electronic sign that provides a multiple-part message operates too slowly to be read at highway speeds, which adds to the problematic slowing.

An agency spokesman says there already are plans to increase the number and improve the wording of the signs. Good idea. At most onramps, there is no indication at all that the system has gone cashless. Motorists enter the toll road with no forewarning, and there's no way to exit without owing a toll. Beyond that, though, drivers who are unfamiliar with the toll roads in many cases won't realize that they have two days to pay online.

For those drivers, the agency should provide two things: First, amnesty with no end date for now for first-time offenders, who should be able to pay just the toll — and no fine — when they are sent a violation notice. That's especially useful in a tourism-oriented county. Second, the agency should consider installing a couple of lanes, adjacent to the main highway, where people can pay with a swipe of a credit card. Even these days, not everyone does business via the Internet. Those lanes would be slow, but they would provide a service to motorists who want to do the right thing and can't thoroughly read about and comprehend a complicated new payment system at 65 mph.