So you got an SMS from Sanral… “You have overdue e-toll fees,” it says, providing an amount, “which have been handed over for collection to VPC. Call 0800 SANRAL (726 725) Ref: 1312284238.”
I’ve been handed over to debt collectors!
No, you haven’t. The VPC is the Violations Processing Centre, an “unfortunate name”, said SA National Consumers Union chairman Clif Johnston, because it makes it sound like you’ve committed an offence.
Feeling spooked? Don’t be.
Your “offence” is simply not being a registered e-tag user and not paying within your seven-day grace period after passing under a gantry. In theory, at least. Sanral calls you an “alternative user”. This means that you now owe the “alternative” hiked up (by three times) rates instead of the standard prices.
Is this even legal?
Yes, though perhaps not very ethical.
According to the Consumer Protection Act, companies can’t coerce or unduly influence or pressure or harass or use unfair tactics to get you to pay for their services. And we’re assuming that applies to Sanral.
Johnston says Sanral is sitting “very close to the edge of the law” on this one, but the problem is caused if payment is demanded.
The SMSes aren’t doing that. It doesn’t say you “have to” or “must” do anything. An earlier e-mail version of the SMS even asked you to “please” contact the VPC.
But an e-mail sent to one company last week included the line: “Failure to make payment will result in you being identified as a non-payer and will be stopped by the Toll Road Enforcement Unit.”
That, says the Justice Project SA’s Howard Dembovsky, is a very serious threat.
Okay, I want to pay. How do I do that?
You can phone the VPC and try to settle your bill. From some of the stories that have been coming out, this is all tiresome and circular, and seems impossible unless you actually register with Sanral. Oh, and it seems you also can’t do it online unless you register. Hurrah!
There’s also a lot of trust in this: that the rate has been correctly calculated by the VPC; that you haven’t been charged as a truck instead of a car; that your licence plates haven’t been cloned. And all of those stories are already coming out.
I don’t want to register. I’m protesting against this thing.
Then you’ll have to find an e-toll customer service centre if you still want to settle your bill – they’re in malls and along the e-toll route. Yes, you’ll likely have to drive under a gantry to find one.
Sanral has a little section on its website that deals with this (available here: bit.ly/1dfLv3V).
“If a road user does not want to register an e-toll account, the e-toll fees may be paid… online by clicking here,” it reads. Don’t get too hopeful. That link doesn’t work.
Wait, aren’t I supposed to get a real invoice?
Yes! There’s nothing forcing you to pay because you received an SMS or e-mail. Those are just “reminders” from your friendly neighbourhood government agency, not letters of demand. You do not have to pay immediately.
In theory, as an “alternative user”, you should get an in-the-post invoice that was generated no later than 32 days after you passed under a gantry. That’s law.
According to a helpful Q&A put together by Justice Project SA (and available at this link: https://www.jp-sa.org/eTolls.asp), it doesn’t have to be registered mail.
“These invoices are contained in envelopes marked ‘permit mail’, and the envelope contains a thick wad of documents,” says Dembovsky.
The invoice lists how much you owe and the instances when and where a car passed under gantries. But it includes a photograph of only one of those instances, “which is about as useful as a toothpick to a duck”, says Dembovsky.
What happens after I get an invoice?
Check the date when the invoice was issued.
If you pay within 30 days of that date, you get a 60 percent discount. If you pay within 60 days of that date, you get a 30 percent discount.
Screw ’em! I’m not paying – but then what?
If you fail or refuse to pay, you can be prosecuted. Though, like everything to do with e-tolls, it’s not clear how that will work.
“It is not clear why Sanral reckons that this constitutes a criminal offence for which you can get a criminal record, given the fact that Aarto specifically decriminalises road traffic offences… apart from the fact that a criminal record is a really scary prospect to most people,” said Dembovsky.
“But whatever happens, if Sanral prosecutes one person, it must prosecute everyone who fails and refuses to pay. It must prosecute everyone who does so.”