There was an article recently in the Houston Chronicle that seems to tip the hand of those who say that electronic toll payment systems like the EZ-Pass can't or won't be used to track personal vehicles. After all, if the technology is out there, what is to stop enforcement agencies from stepping in and making it work to their benefit? Once again it seems like many of the things that make our lives easier—building pass cards, SmarTrip cards, ATM cards, etc.—can be used to follow us around. No, I don't think that watching too many episodes of 24 have made me paranoid.
In the city Houston the electronic toll payment system is called EZ Tag and there are 1.7 million of them in use. For those who don't know, these payment devices (transponders) stick to the inside of a vehicle's windshield and emit a low-powered electronic signal. That signal is usually picked up by the toll collection devices at the toll plazas on a highway and the amount of the toll is automatically deducted from the account the owner has established with the agency. The advantage comes in that the driver does not have to come to a full stop when paying his or her toll, and because there is no waiting for change or receipts the time saved can be substantial.
Currently TranStar, the transportation agency in Houston, is using data it mines from the EZ Tags to determine how fast traffic is going on several of its major roadways. But highway officials have convinced the Chronicle that everything is safe and that privacy will not be impacted: "But rest assured: What the technology won't do is use your EZ Tag to catch you speeding.
"First, the sensors only read the last four digits of each eight-digit individualized tag number. Second, the raw data from individual tags is erased every 5-7 minutes, and only the collective speed is retained for each stretch of road."
If only there was a way of guaranteeing that that would never change.
This comes to us from Copenhagenize.com and I'm really not sure how to take it. Apparently the city of Copenhagen considers itself the world's cycling capital, or at least that's what the website says. It has a running counter of how many kilometers have been cycled in the city during the day.
The thing that is interesting on the August 5 page is that there is apparently a campaign, launched by The Danish Road Safety Council and an insurance company to have people wear helmets while walking. The copy on posters that have popped up around the city reads: "A walking helmet is a good helmet"
"Traffic safety isn't just for cyclists. The pedestrians of Denmark actually have a higher risk of head injury. The Danish Road Safety Council recommends walking helmets for pedestrians and other good folk in high risk groups." Given the challenges that local governments have had in getting people to wear bicycle helmets I can't imagine how tough it would be to convince them that they need to wear a helmet while walking. But the campaign is talking a smart approach by using bike shops to distribute walking helmets and by pointing out that: "A bike helmet is a fine substitute for walking helmets, so there's no need to take it off when you get off your bike. Keep it on throughout the day for maximum safety."
Toll plaza photo: AntyDiluvian on Flickr
Steve Eldridge is a long-time reporter, observer and commentator on the Washington region's transportation issues. You can contact him directly by writing to: Steve@SprawlandCrawl.com. Unless otherwise requested, letters or portions of letters can be used within future columns. Letter writers will be identified by their first name and city/neighborhood.