The Bottom Line / Just Pay on Time

A man who had driven on the Trans-Israel Highway four months ago was surprised to receive a bill in the mail this week for NIS 37.77.

A man who had driven on the Trans-Israel Highway four months ago was surprised to receive a bill in the mail this week for NIS 37.77. In addition to the NIS 12.77 toll, he is being fined NIS 22 for late payment of the toll - unless he pays the original bill immediately. The driver admitted he never paid the original bill, which he received two months ago. Nevertheless, he said, the fine is exaggerated: almost 200 percent of the original bill.

The driver's outrage is hardly unusual. Since the Derech Eretz Company began collecting tolls in December 2002, thousands of people have complained about the size of the late payment fines, which can total thousands of shekels on a bill for a few hundred shekels. Many drivers have also complained that they were fined for late payment when they never received the original bill. And further complaints have been voiced by drivers whose vehicles were impounded on the highway because of their failure to pay previous bills: Not only were their cars seized, but they were forced to pay the costs of warehousing the vehicles. Anger over the company's policies has even sparked an e-mail campaign in recent weeks in which the writer threatened to file a class-action suit.

But before rushing off to sue Derech Eretz, it is worth considering several salient points. First, the Trans-Israel Highway is a toll road, and that fact is clearly indicated by huge signs posted at the highway's entrance. Derech Eretz invested NIS 3.5 billion in building the road, and it is natural for the company to do everything in its power to recoup its investment and even turn a profit.

Second, the size of the fines was determined by the state, which enacted a special law to assist the company in collecting its tolls. The law details the steps that Derech Eretz can take against delinquents. Thus the company is acting within the law in assessing these penalties.

Finally, the company's electronic collection system relies on the database of addresses maintained by the Department of Motor Vehicles. By law, the company is not allowed to send bills to any address other than the one appearing in this database. Thus any complaints about incorrect addresses should not be directed at Derech Eretz; it is the vehicle owner's responsibility to inform the DMV if he has changed his address.

Derech Eretz says it tries to be reasonable if the customer's complaint appears to be justified. Nevertheless, it says, the toll road is a product just like any other - meaning that users must pay to use it, and the company will not tolerate delinquency.

It is true the fines are exceptionally high compared to the Israeli norm. Moreover, this is the first toll road in Israel, so it would have been reasonable for the company to show some flexibility over late payments, at least in the beginning. And one can certainly understand the anguish of a person whose car is impounded while driving on the highway. Nevertheless, the issue here is nonpayment for a product and contempt for the law. Therefore, instead of complaining, getting angry and suing the company, it would be better simply to pay the bills on time.