NBC 10 I-Team: Duplicate license plates cause problems for drivers

Duplicate license plate problems are taking a toll on drivers in Southern New England -- literally. (WJAR)

Duplicate license plate problems are taking a toll on drivers in Southern New England -- literally.

“Every month, I've been receiving a bill between $200 and $300, since July,” Jon Larsson of East Greenwich said.

Larsson is one of several people who turned to the NBC 10 in frustration because someone else is racking up hundreds of dollars in out-of-state tolls, yet he’s getting stuck with the bill.

The NBC 10 I-Team learned more than 1,300 car owners in Rhode Island deal with the same problem every year, as do some in Massachusetts.

New automated toll technology using cameras that scan license plates means drivers don’t even have to slow down to rack up tolls anymore. But combining that technology with outdated license plate policies can cause headaches for drivers when the same series of letters and numbers on a license plate is issued to more than one vehicle.

“The bills just keep coming,” Larsson told NBC 10.

He said he learned that another Rhode Island driver who owns a big rig truck has the same plate number he does and travels across the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York several times a month. In Larsson’s case, the number is issued to a trailer plate, while the other driver has the same number on a commercial plate.

Larsson showed the NBC 10 I-Team a stack of toll bills he’s received from the New York Turnpike Authority despite the fact that his trailer has never left Rhode Island. As the bills become delinquent, Larsson said he’s being sent to collections, which he worries will hurt his credit rating.

"When the truck goes through the toll, they take a picture of the plate,” he said. “They look it up on their system, and I get the bill because my name is first.”

There’s nothing illegal about the problem, as no stolen plates are involved. Instead, it’s a matter of state policy.

The NBC 10 I-Team checked with motor vehicle officials in Rhode Island, as well as Massachusetts. Both states issue the same combinations of characters to more than one plate type.

In Massachusetts, the same characters may be issued to passenger, reserve, trailer and apportioned plates, but vanity plates aren’t duplicated across plate types, according to Patrick Marvin of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

In Rhode Island, the answer is more complicated. A partial list of license plates that can have the same combination of numbers includes: passenger, commercial, trailer, camper, suburban, antique, farm, taxi, transporter, combination and apportioned.

The NBC 10 I-Team checked with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators in Washington D.C. Experts there said their advice to state DMV’s is to make each license plate unique, and issue the combination of characters to one vehicle only.

But that industry best practice isn’t happening in Rhode Island or Massachusetts.

A spokesman with the Rhode Island DMV said Larsson can request a new plate number for his trailer to stop the toll mix-up. But to get the new plate, he’ll have to visit the DMV in person and wait in line with everyone else.

“The Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles works diligently to resolve the consumer concerns that come to our attention,” DMV Spokesman Paul Grimaldi said in an email. “In this case, the New York State Thruway Authority and its vendor were unable to distinguish the variety of license plates in use by the State of Rhode Island. We are working this week with Thruway Authority officials to evaluate a direct operational agreement that will go a great way toward reducing the issue cited in your report.”

Larsson said he’s worried his credit will be damaged by the collections notices, and he wants Rhode Island to modernize its license plate system.

“Why should I be inconvenienced for their mistake?” Larsson asked.

Other NBC 10 viewers also reached out to the I-Team, saying they’d also experienced problems caused by license plate mix-ups.

“I have been having a problem being charged for tolls I have never been to,” wrote Tony. “I have been trying to get back funds that were charged to me from Schenectady, New York.”

“I also got three toll violations from Delaware recently for a plate number I have on a boat trailer here in Rhode Island,” wrote Alyn. “I have never left the state with the boat. It took several months to clear up these charges and fines.”

“I got a bill from EZ Pass, saying I had gone through the Ted Williams Tunnel in Boston -- I never did,” wrote Markrid. “The next month the bill doubled as they had penalties.”

The NBC 10 I-Team contacted New York state officials, who promised Larsson won’t be charged for any more tolls on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island DMV told the NBC 10 I-Team the state has no plans to stop issuing duplicate license plates.

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