How a road toll rule-change makes European transit easier

While the Schengen system brought an end to passport controls on travellers and transporters driving through Europe, other national barriers are still in place to slow down the journey. One of them is road tolling: European countries have different systems, which can be confounding for drivers. Now, however, the European Union has addressed this with a plan to improve cross-border interoperability of electronic tolls, as well as simplify administrative procedures and cut fraud.

The new arrangement was provisionally agreed by the European Parliament and EU member states in November. The European Electronic Toll Service (EETS) means that the various toll systems will work across the EU, allowing drivers to pay tolls with just one on-board piece of equipment.

The EETS will also set up a system for EU member states to trace people who fail to pay road fees, by exchanging information about the identity of those who evade toll payments.

The scheme is part of the First Mobility Package unveiled by the European Commission in May 2017 to achieve clean, competitive and connected mobility across Europe. “This agreement will pave the way for modern European electronic tolling rules, contributing to a seamless travel experience for our road users,” said EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc. “It will also be an important step towards one onboard unit, one contract, and one bill.”

The measure could also make it easier for cities to impose restrictions on dirty vehicles. Until now, these have been difficult to enforce as long as these vehicles continue to cross through cities without any restriction. Using automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), the EETS is particularly suitable for small domains, such as city tolls and can be useful when combined with other technologies in order to enhance the tolling procedure.

A uniform tolling system

From a convenience perspective, this should ensure smooth journeys for road users who have to switch between toll systems when driving from one member state to the other. It sets up reliable, user-friendly and cost-efficient systems suited to a harmonized road-charging policy at EU level. And it anticipates future technological developments, underlining the necessity to make electronic tolls interoperable, in order to reduce the cost and burden linked to the payment of tolls across the EU.

There is no uniform roll tolling system across the EU. Drivers do not have to pay for using motorways in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, while in the UK, Denmark and Sweden they only have to pay for using some major bridges and tunnels.

But with the advent of virtual tolls – tolling that uses satellite signals through on-board devices – European countries are likely to align more closely with their systems and rates as they seek ways to pay for road infrastructure.

The EETS does not address truck emissions, a link that MEP’s had hoped to make when they voted for dirtier vehicles to pay to pollute EU highways. MEPs want to pave the way for distance-based road tolling in Europe rather than time-based fees: in October, they voted to switch to distance-based ones for trucks and buses from 2023, and vans from end of 2027. But that may be coming too. If so, it will reinforce the notion of a fairer and easier road toll system across Europe.