Open road tolling: safer with less congestion

Michael J. Davis of PBS&J looks at the positive effect that open road tolling can have on safety
Charging, Tolling & Road Pricing / January 30, 2012
combination of ORT lanes and cash lanes
At many of OOCEA's toll facilities, vehicles with prepaid E-PASS accounts drive straight on the ORT lanes, whereas cash-paying customers exit right for cash lanes

Tolling agencies convert their cash-only and Electronic Toll Collection plazas to Open Road Tolling (ORT) systems for any number of reasons.

They do it to improve customer service. At traditional toll plazas, vehicles slow down and pay their tolls either with cash or via an electronic transponder. At ORT plazas, vehicles travel at highway speeds under overhead gantries that collect tolls electronically. Not having vehicles slow down means that there is less congestion at ORT plazas. Less congestion means happier customers, reduced vehicle exhaust emissions and better gas mileage.

They do it to improve cost savings. ORT's streamlined infrastructure, including a lack of booths, attenuators, lane lights, and signage, makes it much easier and less costly to maintain.

But while better customer service and cost savings are great, in reality safety should be a toll agency's primary objective for converting to ORT. New data from three of the largest toll agencies in the US (370 Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, 373 Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority, and the Texas Turnpike Authority Division of the 375 Texas Department of Transportation) demonstrate that safety is dramatically improved at ORT plazas.

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise (FTE)

Florida's state-operated turnpike system, constituted in 1953, originally consisted of a single 110-mile stretch of highway running north from Miami along the state's east coast to Fort Pierce. The infrastructure and management of 'Florida's Mainline' has expanded to meet consistently high population growth rates in the Sunshine State over the past 50 years.

The current Turnpike ETC system is SunPass. Over the past decade, FTE has implemented the SunPass(r) Challenge - a concerted program to increase ETC usage. The programme has focused on three main areas: streamlined design and construction protocols to add approximately 100 SunPass-only lanes to the existing system; violation enforcement upgrades to safeguard the revenue stream; and marketing techniques to motivate targeted Turnpike users to switch to ETC.

Additionally, over the past several years the FTE has been converting a number of its existing traditional toll lanes to ORT lanes, reflecting approximately 174 million transactions per year. A pre-ORT versus post-ORT crash analysis indicates a crash reduction of between 13 and 100 per cent, with an average crash reduction of 62 per cent. In terms of hard data, at the most crash-prone plaza vehicle crashes were reduced from 52 to 13 over an 11-month period.

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise learned that it's not necessary to fully convert a toll plaza to ORT to realise significant safety improvements. Four of the seven conversion projects were actually done under the Turnpike Enterprise's 'ORT Lite' concept. A barrier was built to separate the ORT lanes from the existing cash lanes. For the ORT lanes themselves, any structures within the existing plaza/dedicated lanes were demolished and replaced with two or three highway-speed ETC-only lanes in each direction. The ETC equipment was attached to a simple structure. Only one conversion was a fully designed ORT plaza, with tapers, separations, and approach sections. That plaza achieved a 100 per cent reduction in accidents (from three to none over a four-month period).


The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA) constructs, maintains and operates toll roads in Orange County, Florida, which includes the city of Orlando. The expressway system consists of a 105-mile network of tolled expressways encompassing 13 main toll plazas and 62 ramp plazas. OOCEA's ETC system is known as E-PASS.

OOCEA's first toll plaza conversion project was opened at the University Main Toll Plaza in the summer of 2003. The University Main Toll Plaza was the first in Florida to be converted from conventional toll lanes to ORT (which OOCEA calls 'Express Lanes'). The Expressway Authority chose this plaza for the first conversion due to the heavy traffic (at the time more than 70,000 vehicles per day) and the extensive use (more than 60 per cent) of E-PASS.

Based on the total crashes, average annual daily traffic, and estimated vehicle miles (in the area of influence) at the University Main Toll Plaza, a calculated crash rate showed an overall reduction of 49 per cent for the pilot project. The OOCEA went on to convert five more plazas to ORT.

In 2008, the OOCEA processed over 120 million transactions through the converted ORT plazas. A pre-ORT versus post-ORT crash analysis of six of OOCEA's ORT plazas indicates a crash reduction of between 60 and 100 per cent, with an average crash reduction of 80 per cent (excluding the one plaza that had zero crashes both pre- and post-conversion).

At the most crash-prone plaza (which happens to be the University Main Toll Plaza), vehicle crashes were reduced from 79 in the three years prior to ORT conversion to 32 in the three years after. In 2007 and 2008 combined, there was only one crash at that plaza, reflecting, perhaps, that drivers are now more accustomed to driving through ORT facilities.

TTA's Central Texas Turnpike System

Texas Turnpike Authority's (TTA's) Central Texas Turnpike System in the Austin area processed more than 92 million toll transactions in FY2007 and 2008 combined. Slightly over half of the tolling transactions were through an ORT gantry location, and the rest were through a traditional plaza (manned cash booth, automated cash machine, or ETC) where tolls are collected in either stopped or slow-down conditions.

In 2007 and 2008, there were a total of 96 accidents at the traditional toll plazas, but none at the ORT lanes. Over half of the accidents occurred at dedicated ETC lanes.

Why ORT is safer

TTA's catalogue of accidents at the traditional plazas gives good insight into why safety is improved at ORT plazas. A vast majority of the accidents at toll plazas involve vehicles colliding with some part of the toll plaza infrastructure, such as guardrails, bollards, attenuators, barriers, or light posts. For example, 'Truck hit bill changer breaking concrete at base and pulling bolts up'. Or, 'Jeep hit concrete barrier, bollard and safety gate causing damage including breaking window in booth back door'. Or how about, 'Individual in truck put chain around bill changer, ripped it out of the ground and dragged it away'?

ORT lanes are 'open' for good reason. There are no such obstructions for vehicles to hit. No obstructions mean fewer accidents. Fewer accidents result in better safety and reduced costs to both the tolling agency and the vehicle owners. 

Some accidents involve a vehicle rear-ending the slowed or stopped vehicles in front of it. For example, 'Patron in car hit from behind by patron in truck'. Or, 'A patron who was stopped to pay the toll was hit from behind by another patron.'

Fortunately, these were minor accidents. However, consider a horrific accident in 2003 at the Hampshire-Marengo toll plaza on Illinois Interstate 90. A fully loaded tractor-trailer struck the rear of a passenger specialty bus. The bus then hit a pick-up truck and the pick-up truck then rear-ended another truck. The tractor-trailer and bus ended up in the median but the pick-up truck continued into the opposing lanes of traffic where it was hit by another tractor-trailer. Eight specialty bus passengers died and 12 others sustained injuries ranging from minor to serious. The bus driver, the pick-up truck driver and the tractor-trailer driver all suffered minor injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the tractor-trailer truck driver, who was going too fast for the local traffic conditions, to slow for traffic. Contributing to the accident was the traffic backup in a 45mph zone, created by vehicles stopping for the Hampshire-Marengo toll plaza.

Could this accident have been avoided? Absolutely. Obviously, the tractor-trailer driver should have slowed down. But the toll plaza itself was also a factor.

Safety First

The transportation industry has long striven to improve road traffic safety, and great improvements have been made. Data from the International Road Traffic and Accident Database (2003) clearly indicate that there are far fewer traffic fatalities on freeways relative to non-freeway routes.

On motorways, slow-moving vehicles are prohibited, median dividers or crash barriers are in place, intersections are replaced with interchanges, and roadside obstacles are removed. All of these have the effect of normalising traffic flow and decreasing the potential for irregularities that can cause accidents.

Over the past couple of decades ETC has become technologically viable and more widely used by the public. ORT is the next logical step toward combining the benefits of ETC with the peace of mind of safer and more convenient roads.