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How to save big dollars on road tolls

Transurban is having a fine old time with motorists. (Image credit: Clare Farrelly)

Paying tolls is one of the many financial stings you have to endure to live in a big city, but being stuck with outrageous administration fees, late charges and even possible imprisonment just for using our ever-expanding toll-road network is a pain no one should have to endure.

While the single biggest toll operator in Australia, Transurban, pulled in an impressive $1.9 billion in road charges in 2015-16 (a hefty rise of 17 per cent from the financial year before), we're also chipping in a staggering $160 million in fees and fines, according to a study by Money magazine.

What is truly incredible about the system is that the operators are allowed to charge 'administration' fees that can be as much as 500 per cent higher than the tolls themselves.

Last year, The Age reported on the case of a woman who ran up $50,000 of unpaid tolls and associated enormous charges.

In one case that was investigated by the Tolling Customer Ombudsman (TCO), a driver was hit with 17 invoices for unpaid tolls over a five-day period, with each of those invoices attracting an unbelievable administration fee of $21.32.

This left the shocked driver with a bill of almost $400, of which the actual tolls he'd failed to pay comprised just $30.

Last year, The Age reported on the case of a woman who ran up $50,000 of unpaid tolls and associated enormous charges, as a result of a change of address and the fact that her partner had been driving across Melbourne for eight months without an operational e-tag.

The woman had just had a new baby and been diagnosed with cancer and thus may have been distracted from the whole tag/toll issue, until a sheriff turned up at her door with an arrest warrant.

Clearly, it pays to pay your tolls on time, and to always have your e-tag topped up, but things will, from time to time, go wrong, particularly if you're visiting interstate, moving house or in a borrowed car, and Michael Arnold, the Tolling Customer Ombudsman, says that, unsurprisingly, the issue of administration fees is "constantly brought up by toll road users".

"Irrespective of the way administration fees are fixed, they must not impose a penalty on the customer but must reflect the actual costs to the toll operator for the administrative work involved," he told Money magazine.

Cashless tolls make an electronic tag, or e-tag or e-pass, a must.

What we'd like to have explained is how each invoice could need $21.32 worth of administering.

According to Transurban, fees are audited regularly to ensure they comply with the above requirement and its Roam website states that administration fees reflect the costs associated with "reviewing the violation image, processing the licence plate number, printing and posting the toll notice and processing payments".

For whom does the bill toll?

It might feel like the number is going up all the time, but currently Australia has 16 toll roads across Victoria, Queensland and NSW (and the other States and Territories can just think themselves lucky). No less than 13 of those roads are owned by Transurban, not quite a monopoly, but not far off either.

How can you avoid fees and fines?

Preparation is the key, and as long as you're the kind of person who's always absolutely up to date with everything, even when you change address, you should never have to suffer the whack of extra costs.

While the old-style toll booths that used to slow motorists on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, so they could hand coins to a sour-faced attendant, are a thing of the past, cashless tolls make an electronic tag, or e-tag or e-pass, a must.

You need to have your toll topped up with money before you hit the road, and drive through the cameras that snap a photo of your number plate to compare with your tag. If you haven't got a tag, or it's not set up properly you get a three-day grace period in which to pay the fee online, without incurring any of the evil extra charges.

In Victoria, or the Police State at it's also known, non-payment of a road toll is, incredibly, considered a criminal offence.

It is, of course, very easy to forget, and the next thing you know you'll be getting a letter in the mail, usually around a month after you passed the cameras, which adds an administration fee to the toll, or several tolls, you owe.

These fees vary depending on where you live, and the toll operator, but Money magazine sited the example of the Sydney Westlink M7, which charges an admin fee of $10 on a toll of as little as $2.07. Make the same mistake on your way home and you're up for $20 in fees on top of a $4.14 charge.

Fail to pay, or challenge, at this stage and the costs really start to ramp up. In Queensland, if you don't pay within three days you're up for an $8.21 admin fee, but fail to pay that one and you're up for another $170 penalty for non-payment, for each infringement issued.

In Victoria, or the Police State at it's also known, non-payment of a road toll is, incredibly, considered a criminal offence, meaning you can be imprisoned. In NSW you can be forced to carry our community service to make up for your unpaid tolls.

What can you do?

If you can't afford to pay the toll, you can contact the toll-road operator and ask for an extension, after explaining your circumstances. You should be offered an extended payment plan.

If you're unhappy with your treatment or you want to challenge a toll or a fee you should contact the Tolling Customer Ombudsman at tollingombudsman.com.au as soon as possible.

Don't give up too easily, it's always worth fighting.

Be sure to be specific and accurate about the circumstances and to keep a record of all correspondence.

And don't give up too easily, it's always worth fighting, as we also explain in our how to challenge a speeding fine advice piece.

Have you ever challenged a toll road fine? Tell us your experience in the comments below.

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