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More drivers have begun to use the electronic toll-collection system since the introduction of subsidies, cheaper devices and plans to cut tollway fees for users.

The system allows drivers with an IC-chip credit card inserted in a special device in their vehicles to drive through ETC toll booths without stopping. The ETC booth monitors read the data automatically and the amount is withdrawn from the driver’s bank account later.

Overall sales of ETC systems for the current fiscal year are estimated at 3.5 million units, equal to the total sales since the system was introduced in 2001.

A Mitsubishi Electric Corp. official said: “Devices for the ETC system are selling fast. Unless we keep enough inventories, we cannot keep up with sales.”

In 2001, an ETC system cost about 40,000 yen. Now, some are available for less than 10,000 yen.

“The average price has come down 3,000 yen from last year,” said an official of Autobacs Seven Co., a Tokyo-based vehicle equipment sales company.

Autobacs has tripled its sales target between October and March from the same period a year earlier.

Highway public corporations will soon extend a 5,000 yen subsidy to around 2 million buyers of new vehicles to encourage them to buy the device.

Nobuteru Ishihara, minister of land, infrastructure and transport, has said he wants the usage rate of the system raised to 50 percent by next spring from 20 percent at present.

The central government is hastily trying to popularize the system because it is imperative for creating a diversified and flexible toll system before highway public corporations are privatized in October 2005.

Earlier this month, Hanshin Expressway Public Corp. began extending the subsidy to drivers of about 130,000 vehicles.

Japan Highway Public Corp. and Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp. are following suit.

More than 20 local governments are moving to support the system.

The municipal governments of Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, and Niigata will be creating special exits for ETC-equipped vehicles.

Japan Highway began implementing mileage discounts and time-zone discounts this month. It will reduce highway fees by an average of 10 percent by spring for ETC-equipped vehicles.

The Japan Trucking Association will oblige its members, who between them operate 2.3 million trucks, to transfer to the ETC system discount because the government abolished special fee discounts for large highway users, association officials said.

The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry plans to create a framework to popularize the system, including the installation of ETC devices and the issuance of ETC cards at the time of purchase, a ministry official said.

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