Electronic toll system users on rise

by Shinichi Tokuda

The Electronic Toll Collection system, introduced in 2001 to collect highway fees without drivers having to stop, is gaining in popularity due to discounts for installing the system and reduced fees for users.

The Organization for Road System Enhancement, which manages the ETC system, said the number of vehicles registered with the system began sharply increasing early last year and totaled 202,200 in December, a record monthly high, to bring the cumulative total to 2.11 million.

“Until around 2002, registration had been sluggish. But since the beginning of 2003, it has begun soaring,” said Hiroshi Hosomi, who is in charge of the ETC system at Autobacs Seven Co.

The car equipment retail chain saw sales of its ETC device from April to December jump more than four times over the year before.

Drivers whose vehicles are equipped with the system insert an IC-chip credit card into the device that is scanned automatically by ETC monitors at toll booths.

The toll is afterward withdrawn from the driver’s bank account.

The Autobacs Tokyo Bay Shinonome in Koto Ward, the company’s largest outlet, boasts an ETC section at its entrance.

“We usually sell 10 units a day, but before the New Year’s holidays (when many people return to their hometowns), customers surged and we sold 40 units a day,” a store official said.

The ETC sales surge can be attributed to the abolition last February of easily forged prepaid highway toll cards, which had face values of 30,000 yen and 50,000 yen.

The 50,000 yen cards could cover 58,000 yen worth of toll fees. ETC users who meanwhile also pay 50,000 yen in advance get the same discount.

Prices for ETC systems and installation fees have also fallen, further fueling the popularity.

When the service began in March 2001, the system cost between 30,000 yen and 40,000 yen.

“The price at present is half of that amount, at less than 15,000 yen on average,” an Autobacs official said.

Other factors contributing to the system’s popularity include toll discounts and a government subsidy paid to those buying the device.

The Land, Infrastructure, Land and Transport Ministry began a trial run in July to offer discounts to drivers using the ETC system on highways for more than 300 km. The farther they drive, the bigger the discount.

The ministry was due to end the trial Jan. 18 but extended it until March 18. It is also offering 5,000 yen in subsidies to purchasers of the system.

The Organization for Road System Enhancement has forecast that about 15 percent of vehicles using toll highways will use the system in fiscal 2003, which ends in March.

By the end of March, ETC scanners will be installed at almost all of the 1,300 toll gates nationwide.

Ministry officials hope the rate of use of the ETC system will rise to 30 percent in fiscal 2004 and to 70 percent in fiscal 2007.