If you want to dance, you've got to pay the piper. And if you want to zip along the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, you have to pay a toll of as much as $9.55 per trip.
James Kritikson, 72, of La Verne never paid the toll, so he received a notice in the mail saying he had to cough up the unpaid fee, plus a penalty of $25. If he didn't come clean by March 28, the penalty would jump to $100.
There was just one problem: On the date — Jan. 25 — and at the time — 10:16 p.m. — that the notice said Kritikson was sneering at the 91 Express Lanes' toll system, he was in fact home with his wife watching TV, and his car was in the garage.
"Is this a scam?" Kritikson wanted to know. If not, how did the 91 Express Lanes Violation Processing Center obtain his name, address and the license number of his car?
"What is to prevent them 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.
This might strike some as a small-potatoes issue to fret about. But what happened to Kritikson illustrates the fact that we live in a high-tech world in which automated systems can make problems for you by sucking you into their universe, even if you had nothing to do with them.
And with more and more things being run by computers — tax payments, loan servicing, debt collection — the problems that machines can make for us can be serious indeed.
In the case of the 91 Express Lanes, its operator, the Orange County Transportation Authority, reported receiving about $800,000 in penalty fees from alleged toll scofflaws in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Kritikson sent a letter challenging the violation and requesting that his citation be canceled. It didn't have to be a registered letter, but he didn't want to take any chances. The letter cost him $6 to send.
"I was not on the 91 freeway," Kritikson wrote. "My car … was at home in La Verne, in the garage, at the time and on the date on the Notice of Toll Evasion Violation."
He received a new notice last month saying that "after careful review of the information you provided and the vehicle and license plate information, we have dismissed this Notice of Toll Evasion Violation."
By the numbers, of course, Kritikson's case is a drop in the bucket for the OCTA.
Joel Zlotnik, a spokesman for the agency, said there about 12 million car trips annually on the 91 Express Lanes and roughly 350,000 citations for toll evasion are issued. Of this number, only about 10% are disputed, he said, and about 900 a year are found to have been wrongly issued.
Zlotnik said he couldn't discuss Kritikson's case specifically, but that generally, the problem of erroneous notices is a factor of the agency's machines not always being particularly good at law enforcement.
Anyone driving on the 91 Express Lanes has his or her license plate photographed automatically. A computer then takes a look at the photo and makes sure the license in the picture matches the license on file for the route's FasTrak system — the same system used for other toll roads statewide.
If no connection can be made, and thus no toll paid, a violation notice is automatically generated. Problem is, the computer has a habit of misreading people's license plates from time to time.
Zlotnik said a human being becomes involved only after an appeal is filed — the "careful review" Kritikson received. If the license in the photo isn't the same as the one on the disputed notice, you're off the hook.
It all seems straightforward. In fact, you could say the system works pretty efficiently.
But I'm with Kritikson: I wonder how many bogus violations actually result in fines being paid because people took them at face value or chose not to bother with the appeal process.
In the "Terminator" movies, the computer system Skynet takes over the world. Me, I'm keeping a closer eye on FasTrak.
A bitter industry
To the surprise of no one, a landmark study published last week in the journal PLoS One found that the easy availability of sugar is fueling the global epidemic of Type 2 diabetes.
The study laid much of the blame for the public health crisis on sugary beverages, including those sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
So how did soda makers respond? They said the study's findings should be "viewed cautiously."
"This study does not show — or even attempt to show — that consuming sugar causes diabetes," the American Beverage Assn. said. "In fact, its most robust finding confirms the well-established relationship between obesity and diabetes risk."
No, its most robust finding is that higher sugar consumption accounts for a third of new cases of Type 2 diabetes in the United States and a quarter of cases worldwide.
Among 175 countries studied, every 150-calorie increase in sugar consumption — the equivalent of a can of Coke or Pepsi — can be tied to a 1.1% increase in the prevalence of diabetes.
You can see why soda makers wouldn't be pleased with that conclusion. But their inability even to acknowledge the problem isn't just frustrating. It's dangerous.
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 email@example.com.