Unreadable plates allowing Texas toll road drivers to cheat the system

Here's an example of the outrageous lengths some drivers go to in order to obscure their licence plate numbers and avoid paying tolls. (Photos: Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority)

There's no question that Austin traffic is bad. KEYE TV talked to one man who referred to it as a "growing tumor." So, what is the antidote? According to some, the answer is tolls.

Toll roads often make your commute quicker, but that comes at a price. We found, however, some drivers that went to great lengths to avoid paying.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) sent us photos of people hanging out of their cars and doing tricks on their motorcycles to cover up their license plate with their own bodies. Some, but not all, of the photos were captured in Texas.

There are less extreme methods as well. In just a few hours of searching in downtown Austin, north Austin, and in Pflugerville, we found dozens of drivers who might make it hard for cameras to recognize them.

KEYE TV found a few plates that had clouded covers on top of them, blurring the license plate almost completely from view.

Another plate was so dirty, you couldn't make out the numbers or letters on both the front and back.

We also found license plates half tucked under part of the car, or bent so only part of the plate is visible.

It is almost impossible to know if drivers are intentionally covering up their license plates or not, which is why it can be hard for law enforcement to catch offenders.

The Travis County Sheriff's Office has only given out about 200 tickets for obscured license plates since 2014. In that same time, the Texas Department of Public Safety has issued 1,121 citations statewide. Fines for those citations can cost you up to $200.

The law says your plate cannot have a coating, covering, protective substance or other material that distorts angular visibility or detectability, alters or obscures one-half or more of the name of the state in which the vehicle is registered, or alters or obscures the letters or number of the license plate number or the color of the plate.

"It could be a dark-tinted cover across your license plate, or it could be an unclean license plate," said Texas State Trooper Robbie Barrera.

However Barrera said if she can see the plate, it is not a violation. She can't know if the toll camera can or can't.

The tolling authorities, the Texas Department of Transportation and RMA, have no law enforcement ability.

According to data provided to us by TxDOT and RMA, only a fraction of license plates go unread. Most months, it is less than 1%. Still, given the number of vehicles passing through tolls, an average of about 26,000 plates a month go undetected or can't be read by toll cameras. TxDOT says there are other reasons and factors other than obstructed plates that could lead to an unreadable plate.

To calculate the approximate amount of toll revenue lost when plates are unreadable, we took the average number of plates obscured each month from both TxDOT and RMA and multiplied it by the lowest and highest possible "pay by mail" price. We concluded the loss could be anywhere from about $16,000 to $200,000 in lost toll revenue every month.

"To me, that's a problem," said Texas State Senator Robert Nichols.

Nichols heads the transportation committee and said the issue will likely make it on the next agenda for lawmakers to discuss.

"They really shouldn't do it," said Nichols. "It's forcing everybody else to pay more."

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