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Thanks to FasTrak, I could relax at home while also breaking the law hundreds of miles away

Thanks to FasTrak, I could relax at home while also breaking the law hundreds of miles away
The Carquinez Bridge linking the Northern California cities of Vallejo and Crockett is an awfully long way to travel just to commit a wanton act of toll evasion. (Tom Paiva)

At 8:49 p.m. on May 10, a Thursday, I was at home in Los Angeles, reading on the couch, as is typically the case around that time on weeknights, the dishes done, the dog walked.

I was also at that very moment maliciously committing an act of toll evasion nearly 400 miles away in Lane 4 of the Carquinez Bridge linking the Northern California cities of Vallejo and Crockett.

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And there's proof. I received a Notice of Toll Evasion this week from Bay Area FasTrak. It includes a dark photo of what looks an awful lot like my car and my license plate number.

Adding to the mystery, I have a pretty decent alibi. I was on TV that day at 3:30 in the afternoon, which places me at the Los Angeles Times' downtown building at a very specific time.

According to Google Maps, it would take a minimum of six hours to get from my office to the Carquinez Bridge, which means I couldn't have gotten there until 9:30 p.m. at the earliest — or about 45 minutes after my car was photographed shamelessly breaking the law.

Nevertheless, FasTrak wants $30 for my flagrant abuse of the space-time continuum.

Spoiler alert: It wasn't my car.

But the eerily close match speaks to the ease with which mistakes can happen anywhere FasTrak is in use, which covers much of the Southland and the Bay Area.

"The vast majority of toll violations we issue are accurate," said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees FasTrak in the Bay Area. "Maybe about 33 a day are not."

That means almost three dozen people are receiving bogus notices every day saying they have to pay a fine.

Metro ExpressLanes, which operates FasTrak in Los Angeles County, says it figures only about two erroneous notices go out daily, which might speak to the agency's more efficient operation or, more likely, the possibility that L.A. drivers are so accustomed to traffic violations they'll pay any citation that comes their way.

"Nine times out of 10 it's a misreading of the license plate," said Rick Jager, a Metro spokesman.

If you look online, you can see that fighting FasTrak is no easy task. There are complaints from people who say their appeals were rejected or they had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to have their citations dismissed.

A few years ago, I wrote about a La Verne man who received a notice that he'd failed to pay a toll for using the 91 Express Lanes at 10:16 one night. The fact that he was home watching TV at the time, and his car was in the garage, probably had something to do with his failure to pay.

This fellow wondered, reasonably, how many other people might receive such notices and simply pony up some cash to avoid the hassle of disputing a citation.

"What is to prevent [FasTrak] from sending a demand to anyone whose information is available to see how many fools just pay the money to avoid the hassle?" he asked.

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Considering the photo attached to my notice seemed unmistakably to be of my own car, I probably wouldn't have hesitated to shell out the demanded $30 if the violation had been believable — my mistakenly using a local carpool lane, for example.

But this was just weird. How could FasTrak have snapped a photo of my car hundreds of miles from where it was parked?

The answer didn't become clear until I was able to access the citation online and get a better look at the picture. That's when I saw the license plate was an exact match except for one character.

Where mine has a "T," this was an "I." Otherwise, every letter and number were the same.

And it wasn't the Toyota sport utility vehicle I drive. It was a similar-looking Honda SUV.

What are the odds, right? Two Japanese vehicles of near-identical appearance, with California license plates only one character different. This is some Mulder-and-Scully stuff.

But that just makes this case of mistaken identity even more troubling.

Manuel Espiritu, who oversees disputed notices for Bay Area FasTrak, told me no human beings were involved in issuing my citation. He said the photo of the offending vehicle was scanned by FasTrak's computer, which is programmed to handle things automatically if it's "98% confident" it can read the license plate.

In this case, the computer was fully satisfied it was on top of things, so it passed along the license number — the wrong one, mine — to a computer at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which responded with my name, address and registration data.

Yes, this is how the robot takeover begins.

"There is something wrong with the software," Espiritu acknowledged. "It probably needs some fine-tuning."

He and I looked at the online FasTrak photo together, and he had no difficulty spotting the "I" rather than "T" on the license plate.

"Oh," Espiritu added, "this is a Honda."

He said if a human had seen the photo there's no way I'd have received a notice. "This violation would have been immediately transferred to the correct vehicle," Espiritu said.

But humans aren't usually involved. Usually it's the computer and its smug 98% insistence on being right even when it's not.

Bay Area FasTrak says 368,600 toll-evasion notices were issued last month throughout the nine-county region. Of those 368,600 notices, about 1,000 were erroneous, FasTrak admits.

That means a thousand people like me were wondering what the heck was going on.

Metro ExpressLanes says it sends out about 139,000 notices monthly to L.A. County denizens, and says an average of 54 a month are in error.

You can dispute a citation in writing if you choose. The notice tells you how. It's much easier to do it online.

Be prepared to explain in detail why FasTrak has its facts wrong. Since you're probably challenging photographic evidence, you'll need to make a convincing case — it's not good enough to just say, "Nope, that's not me."

Your best chance of getting off the hook is to show that the vehicle or license plate in the photo doesn't match what's registered in your name.

That's what I stressed in my online appeal, along with the bit about my being able to prove I was in L.A. at a certain place at a certain time, so good luck sticking me with this rap.

By the time we spoke, Espiritu said a human worker had already reviewed my file and had let me off the hook. He said a toll-evasion notice was instead being generated for the Honda owner.

On top of that, Espiritu said, because the two vehicles and license plates are so bizarrely similar, any time one of them comes up in the FasTrak system, it will be flagged for "human intervention."

That's fine by me. But heads up, Honda dude: You'll want to play it safer on the Carquinez Bridge from now on.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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