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The first toll road in Israel, scheduled to open for traffic in another few months, is based on the assumption that Israeli drivers will be prepared to pay for a service that they are accustomed to receive for free. The Trans-Israel Highway company, which is the state's agent for the road, claims that its surveys indicate that Israelis will agree to pay to travel on a fast and comfortable road. The company cites as a precedent the fact that Israelis now readily pay for parking spots that they previously accessed without charge.

But the Derech Eretz group, the tender holder for the Trans-Israel Highway, is not taking any chances. The system now being established to collect toll payments includes a range of measures to counter all types of toll evaders, from identifying drivers who are delinquent in paying tolls, to catching drivers who try to obscure their license plates before entering the highway.

As part of these efforts, an agreement was signed last week between the Transportation Ministry and Derech Eretz that authorizes the company to use the ministry's database to identify drivers on the highway. Under this agreement, a camera will photograph the license plate of all cars entering the highway. The company's toll system will then decipher the license plate number and transmit it to the ministry, which will in turn provide the required information for charging the owner of the vehicle.

The collection of tolls on the Trans-Israel Highway will be executed via a central system designed by Ness Technologies and built at a cost of NIS 2 million. The system incorporates equipment at all sections of the highway and an underground fiber-optic system that will calculate the route traversed by each vehicle in order to determine the toll fee.

Frequent travelers will be able to attach electronic devices to their cars that immediately transmit identifying information to the toll system. Vehicles without these devices will be identified via the standard photography procedure described above. Motorists will receive a monthly bill with their toll charges.

A vehicle that travels on the highway and does not pay the required fee, for example, will be flagged in the toll system as a violator. Accordingly, the company will be able to receive from the ministry, for example, information on other vehicles registered to the same driver and seek payment through any of these other vehicles. Thus, even if a driver sells a car which traveled the road without payment and subsequently drives on to the road with a new vehicle, the system will send an alert to the patrol cars on the highway, which will be equipped with cellular terminals. The patrol officers will be empowered to stop and even impound the new vehicle.

The Toll Law stipulates that a vehicle may be impounded if a driver fails to pay his toll bill within four months. The delinquent driver will also be charged storage fees for the period his car is impounded. In other cases, a driver who fails to pay a toll bill may not be allowed by the ministry to renew his driver's license.

Derech Eretz emphasizes that the toll system has solid legal backing. According to the company's vice-president for technology, Yaakov Peleg, the Toll Law and related regulations are intended to enable an operator to collect toll fees from drivers and access information from the ministry's database, while still guarding the privacy and confidentiality of vehicle owners. He notes that communication with the ministry's database is automatic, without human intervention.

Under the agreement between Derech Eretz and the ministry, the company promises to refrain from making any inappropriate use of information it obtains from the ministry. Transportation Ministry officials have expressed concern on a number of occasions that drivers might be deterred from using the highway if their personal information is made available to commercial operators.

Derech Eretz is aware of these concerns, but insists that its system is secure and conforms with the strict guidelines set by the ministry. These guidelines include the securing of communication lines and granting access privileges only to a limited number of company personnel. These authorized personnel will have to be individually approved by the ministry and sign a confidentiality agreement.

Roi Ash, a manager at Ness Technologies, explains that the systems involved in collecting the toll are closed systems. Links to other systems, such as banks, are limited to narrowly defined circumstances. Ash also notes that toll charges may be contested by motorists, with any appeal checked against the archive of photographs stored in the system.