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The transport ministry has started deliberations to phase out all manned toll collection facilities on expressways in Japan and replace them with the electronic toll collection system, following the infection of fee collectors with the novel coronavirus.

The deliberation is taking place through a working group of the Social Infrastructure Development Council, an advisory panel to the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism.

The ministry has already sought to automate fully the collection of expressway tolls with the ETC system in order to reduce costs and flexibly change usage fees in accordance with road congestion and other conditions. In 2015, the working group proposed the launch of studies on the full automation of toll collection as a future task.

Since the start of this year, however, toll collectors on expressways in Tokyo and many other places have contracted the virus, making it imperative to establish infection prevention at toll collection booths, where workers receive bills and coins from a large and unknown number of people. Measures included closing non-ETC lanes at 11 toll gates.

The ministry is planning to shut down all manned collection booths in stages, starting with toll gates with a high usage rate of ETC cards. “We should start the process anytime now because a shortage of people willing to work as toll collectors is expected,” a senior ministry official said. The ministry is about to draw up a road map for a specific process of eliminating manned booths.

More than 90% of drivers use ETC cards when they drive on expressways. One question is how to prompt use of the ETC system by people who usually avoid expressways.

To use the system, a driver needs to purchase a required device and get it installed in his or her vehicle. The driver also needs an ETC card, which is inserted into the device to automatically pay tolls.

In addition, the driver needs a credit card to get an ETC card. If the driver does not have a credit card, an ETC card issued by an expressway operating company is available, although it requires a security deposit and annual fee.

The ministry is considering ways to lower initial expenses for using the ETC system, such as subsidizing the purchase of in-vehicle devices and cutting security deposits.

When all manned collection booths are closed, another question will be how to collect a toll from a non-ETC vehicle that accidentally enters an expressway. One way of addressing this problem would be to photograph the vehicle’s registration number, trace its owner through the ministry and collect the toll from the owner.

But such measures would entail some cost and time when it comes to smaller vehicles and motorcycles. As these are treated differently from bigger vehicles, which are registered with the transport ministry, expressway operators cannot ask the ministry directly for owner details.

A mechanism to promote the use of the ETC system without heavy burdens on drivers needs to be created to achieve the full automation of toll collection.

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