Redneck toll collectors - customer complaints on NJTP revealed by Smoking Gun website

February 23, 2010

Gross, aggressive, rude and occasional lewd behavior by toll collectors of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority is detailed in customer complaints posted by The Smoking Gun (TSG), an investigative website owned by Court TV. This has created quite a stir. We've got lots of emails and phone calls, and been asked for comment by reporters.

The complaints were obtained under the state freedom of information act. The names and some of the details of complainers and alleged offending toll collectors are blacked out. There is little to indicate what followed the complaints.

Around 550 complaints over an 18 month period are mentioned, but those on review at TSG seem to be many fewer - we haven't counted them. We've picked up a number to display through this report.

Some of them recount nasty behavior, others are rather less serious. A few are just funny. None rise to the level of assault. But still the impression you get - let's not mince words here - is that the New Jersey Turnpike employs a number of short-tempered, chip-on-the-shoulder and stupid rednecks, who shouldn't be there.

Most of the complaints are in the form of a Record of Telephone Complaint taken down by customer service, and there are some emails and letters. Many of them specify the time and describe and identify the toll collector ("T/C") and lane and allow simple identification of the offending collector. Others are more vague and could lead to doubt about which toll collector the complaint was made.

The greatest number of complaints are about toll collectors cursing patrons out, using the various 'fuck' words or 'asshole,' 'shithead' or 'white trash.' Some involve the collector calling the patron something belittling like a 'moron,' 'bitch,'  'crazy,' or 'stupid.'

Or they involve some interaction that generates the "up yours" finger signal.

Quite a lot of incidents are apparently provoked by patrons paying with large denomination bills or 'pennies'  - extra work for the toll collector no doubt, and annoying, but permissible, and within the rules.

Or there are accidents or carelessness such as dropping of coins that the short-fuse collector chooses to take as deliberate, a provocation.

In some cases collectors throw coins into the patron's vehicle or drop them on roadway pavement.

There are a few cases of lewd propositioning of patrons, and offering a woman patron to "flash it." Others are collectors hitting on woman patrons.

The odd one involves use of racial slurs such as 'nigger bastard,' 'motherfucking nigger' or 'you white people' and 'white trash' (from a black collector).

And a few involve challenges to fight. Most often it seems to be the threat 'to kick your ass.'

In one or two cases there is a threat, maybe empty, but nasty, proclaiming that "I know where you live..."

There are a couple of a toll collector playing the stupid game with the motorist of withdrawing their hand when money is offered, then demanding money again with hand out and withdrawing it again when money is again tendered.

One or two are complaints are about toll collectors apparently deliberately taking a long time to provide change.

Customers say they are particularly upset about offensive language in front of children traveling with them.

There's a complaint about a toll collector stealing a patron's wedding ring off his finger as he passes the toll money.

Here are the complaints on the TSG website:

How much to believe?

Customer complaints can of course be one-sided, exaggerated and, on occasion - probably rare - totally fabricated. 

Some customers are difficult and obnoxious themselves, but that can be handled without reacting in kind.

Complaints can't be taken at face value. They have to be investigated. But there is usually fire where there's smoke. Toll collectors who are the subject of repeated complaints are likely to be bad.

If a toll collector is suspected of bad behavior their booth could be put under video surveillance and their interaction with customers gotten on tape for review by the plaza superintendent.

Knowing that they are on video in itself may curb much of the abuse.

Not difficult to get good toll collectors

Toll collectors are among the best paid service workers - at $20/hr plus benefits at most US toll authorities.

Most toll agencies have waiting lists of people hoping for a toll collector job.

They never need to advertise vacant positions - not even in boom economic conditions because the wages and conditions are very competitive with what's available elsewhere to people of similar background and skills.

It isn't difficult to get good toll collectors.

There's a lot of the story not yet written: we don't know how widespread this misbehavior is, what proportion of total complaints the Smoking Gun people obtained, how many different toll collectors were involved, in how many different places. Were there repeat offenders, or were the offenses one-off by lots of diffrent collectors.

Incidence one in 13k?

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority is responsible for the New Jersey Turnpike (NJTP) and the Garden State Parkway (GSP.) The GSP does about 400m transactions/yr of which 29% are cash so there are 116m/yr cash collection or 318k/day. NJTP does about 240m transactions/yr 25% being cash, that's 60m/yr or 164k/day. We're talking about an average 482k cash transactions per day or 264m cash transactions during the 18 month period for which the TSG complaints were registered.

If we guess that there might have been four or five similar incidents for every complaint officially lodged then we're talking about two thousand or so bad incidents accompanying 264m transactions, a rate of a bit over one incident per 13,200 transactions.

The odds of any tollroad patron encountering one of these incidents are therefore quite low. Someone paying two cash tolls average per day runs up 730/year and on the basis of our calculation would only expect to encounter such a redneck collector every 18 years.

Perhaps the biggest story is in how the complaints have been handled by NJ Turnpike management.

Turnpike reaction

Joe Orlando chief of staff at the Turnpike makes the point that while the complaints have just been released in mass by The Smoking Gun, the Turnpike itself has been dealing with the complaints all along - one by one as they were received.

He says that unfortunately a lot of complaints are anonymous.

Under the terms of the Turnpike's labor contracts, employees being accused of bad behavior are entitled to confront their accuser. 

It's the toll collector's proverbial "day in court."

If the customer isn't prepared to testify then the collector gets off, it seems.

"In nearly every case in the past where accusers have become a part of the process, employees have been appropriately reprimanded or suspended for as much as 30 working days," Orlando tells us.

He adds: "We do encourage (customers) to follow through on complaints so that we can address the matter."

None dismissed here

Orlando says in answer to our question that no one was dismissed in the batch of complaints aired by the Smoking Gun: "In the past there have been, not out of this batch (of complaints listed) though. It's a progressive disciplinary process."

The NJ Turnpike Authority, we understand, does sometimes video toll collectors and their transactions with customers, usually when there are suspicions of theft, but management can use video to check on the civility of toll collector behavior.

COMMENT: This doesn't deserve to be exaggerated. The incidence is low. Most toll transactions are handled civilly and cordially. But it shouldn't be dismissed as trivial either.

People shouldn't be treated like this. First because it's wrong and second because impressions and reputations are often based on the abnormal.

It may not be fair, but it happens that people and institutions are often judged by lapses and unusual behavior.

The Turnpike needs to study these complaints and see where their source can be removed by a change in rules. For example If the Turnpike Authority wants to relieve collectors of the chore of counting pennies - and delaying other patrons in line - it needs to have a rule: "NO PENNIES." It doesn't have such a rule. Maybe it should have one.

Same with bills and change that has to be made. Maybe it shouldn't accept bills over $20?

It's a matter of judgment and personal opinion but we think these complaints should have been treated much more forcefully. A good number of the offending toll collectors here should have been fired outright, not just reprimanded or suspended for a week or so, and let back.

This is a service industry, and it doesn't need people who can't control their tempers and who behave badly to customers.

Manual toll collection is of steadily decreasing importance as electronic tolling takes over. There probably won't be any toll collection jobs in ten or 15 years. It will be all-electronic. Meanwhile toll authorities can be quite selective about the kind of people they do employ, and mercilessly weed out the bad ones.

We guess McDonalds, Bank of America and other service oriented businesses have their full share of difficult and irritaing customers that tax the patience of staff. But we doubt they'd just reprimand or suspend for many of the behaviors described here by their staff. They'd be out, never to be let back.

NOTE: This report has been heavily added to and revised during the day.

TOLLROADSnews 2010-02-23 LAST EDITED 22:00

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