Oct 22, 2016

What happens when the ETC barrier doesn’t open?

What happens when the ETC barrier doesn’t open? photo

I’ve got the ETC system set up in the motor for Japan’s highways. Very quickly, for those that may not know, ETC stands for Electronic Toll Collection System. It’s a kind of box in car / credit card combo. Stick card into box and when you go through Japan’s highway toll gates, something scans it, opens the gate/barrier and off you go. When you successfully pass through the gate, said box speaks to you, something along the lines of how much you’ve just been charged (to be paid like you would a credit card every month).  

As much as the ETC system makes sense (and saves the Japan motorist a little money) this driver always experiences a frisson of tension/excitement when approaching toll gates, lest they don’t actually open for me.

This fleeting feeling has been exacerbated of late since I seem to have trouble getting my card into the ETC box. It’s fast turning into one of life’s banal annoyances. I fire up the engine, and reach into the glove box to slip the card into the ETC kit. It used to be that the card would be ‘accepted’ every time, indicated by the green light flashing and ETC kit saying something along the lines of ETCカードを認証しました / ETC kaado ninsyoushimashita / ETC card authorised.  

These days though, the thing has become somewhat recalcitrant, only issuing its ‘authority’ when it suits (ETCカード確認ください / ETC kaado kakunin kudasai / Please check your ETC card - ‘I’ve checked it. It says ETC on it, it’s mine, it’s in the slot, and it’s that same bloody card every time!’). I find that inserting before switching on the engine helps.  

On occasion I’ve seen cars get stopped at ETC toll gates that have refused to open. I confess to passing by with a smirk and imagining how annoyed the drivers stuck behind must be. 

Only fitting then that this smug attitude has karmically helped the same thing happen to me. This morning.  

Driving to the beach for a surf, the first leg was fine. Coming back started out fine, too. It least I thought it did. Card was in slot, green light on. After passing the first toll gate however, I thought perhaps that ETC kit’s babble differed from the usual. I had music on, and was completely knackered after the surf so paid it scant thought. After ditching the snack wrappers and empty coffee can at a highway service station, I switched on the motor and ETC kit gave me the red light and told me to check the card. Eventually I got the green light and hence the obstinate thing’s blessing. Still, the prospect of the next toll gate didn’t sit well. Which is what I ended up doing, sitting uncomfortably after it wouldn’t open.  

So, what happens when the ETC barrier doesn’t open?

What happens is, you let out an expletive. Then you realise you don’t know what to do. Then you see what looks like a ‘help’ button outside, but you’ve overshot it. So now you have to get out of the car, in front of the furious driver behind. And the one behind them, and so on. Thankfully you avoid the death stares as the toll booth worker has come out to help. Hand them your ETC card, and REMEMBER, you need to have remembered where you’ve come from. Not as in your home country, but hopefully the last gate you went through. Now, I know this ‘surf run’ like the back of my hand, but if I was in unfamiliar territory … . So, then you have to sit with your head in your hands catching glimpses in the rear view mirror of the people behind fantasising about punching you in the face, repeatedly. It’s as awkward as you could possibly imagine, added to which it takes more than just a moment of two for toll booth worker go through the necessary procedure.

It gets done though (card handed back and told to be put back into ETC kit, plus a receipt for the amount that charged), and I speed off, hoping to put distance between me and the car behind.  

So now, me and ETC kit are no longer on speaking terms.  

Surprisingly, ETC has its own portal site - GO!ETC


From Flickr Author OiMax



Traveler, surfer, and scribe. Based in Tokyo for six years.