Southbound I495 looking toward Tyson's, with the new hotlanes to the left, Monday November 19, 2012. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I’ve seen you mention the “small toll” required to use the new 495 Express Lanes.

Of course, backing up on the Capital Beltway is not to be condoned, but it may be that what is “small” to you and me may not be small for some drivers. Drivers might have no money or credit cards with them, or they may be intending to use that small amount for something else on the way home.

Or they might freak out because they don’t know how much the toll is going to be.

I haven’t driven on this part of the Beltway yet, so I don’t know whether information on the amount of the toll is presented before one enters the express lanes.

I’m just trying to speak up for those drivers who are really strapped when it comes to cash.

— Judy Cusick, Arlington

Our letter writer clearly isn’t endorsing bad driving, but I should note that I was talking about the size of the toll in comparison to the value of human life after reports that some motorists were taking evasive action to get out of the toll lanes: “A driver who backs up on the Beltway is risking people’s lives just to avoid a small toll.”

Cusick makes many valid points. Drivers in the D.C. region aren’t used to toll roads of any sort, let alone one of the most sophisticated versions of a toll system ever grafted onto a U.S. highway.

Highways are made to be monotonous. You’re not supposed to get a video-game thrill out of the signs and lane divides on an interstate. No zombies ahead. Just the same old stuff that was on the driving test.

But the monotony of highways designed for safety can lead to an unsafe condition known as highway hypnosis. Ever drive past the exit you’ve been taking for years?

On the familiar, old Beltway, some drivers may simply be lost in their thoughts when they discover that they have wandered into some fresh hell. They see white bollards on their right and an E-ZPass Express sign overhead.

What’s next?

Well, there are no tollbooths, so no need to freak over that. No one is going to take anyone’s cash. If the driver has an E-ZPass, there will be a deduction from the account. If not, a camera will record the vehicle’s license plate and the owner will get a bill.

If they’ve inadvertently gotten that far into the express lanes, they may indeed be clueless about the amount of the toll. Transurban, the lanes’ operator, reported Friday that the average minimum toll for the entire 14 miles was $1.65 and the maximum was $3.70. But if a driver got off at the first exit, it might be 30 cents. (For drivers who don’t have an E-ZPass, there’s still an administrative fee of $1.50 if they promptly pay on the operator’s Web site at www.495expresslanes.com. The penalty will get higher if they wait to pay up.)

Anyone who has a bad experience with the express lanes would be better off calling the operator’s customer-care number, 855-495-9777, than trick-driving out of the lanes.

Avoidance strategy

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Those of us who are occasional users of the Beltway — not commuters — would like your advice on how we can avoid getting into those new toll lanes you’ve been writing about.

— Richard R. Elevell, Chevy Chase

Even if many, many drivers see my answer to the previous letter, it’s still a small fraction of the people who get on the Beltway. That’s the upside of monotonous highways. You don’t need to read a newspaper or visit a Web site to understand them.

For you occasional Beltway users — and there are plenty — the key is that these are new lanes on the left side of the Beltway. From the regular old Beltway lanes, you enter the express lanes via a left-side ramp. And the only entry points from those regular lanes are in Springfield and just north of the Dulles Toll Road.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.