It was about 6pm on a Monday evening, and Muhammad Akmal Aminudin Baki was on his way home to Bangi, Selangor, after finishing some business in Taman Melawati, Kuala Lumpur.
Waiting in a line of traffic, he gradually realised that something was wrong.
Thousands of vehicles at the Kuala Lumpur Middle Ring Road 2 were at a complete standstill.
“I frequently go back and forth from Bangi to Kuala Lumpur,” he said, recalling his experience to MalaysiaNow.
“Normally, it only takes me half an hour to get from Melawati to the Sungai Besi toll. That day, though, I was stuck for nearly two hours.”
Akmal, along with thousands of other road users, had fallen victim to inefficiencies in the implementation of the RFID system at PLUS toll plazas, which resulted in traffic congestion in several areas.
He left Melawati at 6.15pm. It was almost 8pm by the time he reached the Sungai Besi toll plaza.
“If there was nothing urgent that we needed to do, it might not be such a big thing,” Akmal said.
“But for those who had pressing business to attend to, all they could do was wait in line.”
Akmal, an entrepreneur, had intended to get an RFID sticker for his car. But after his experience that day, he says he is now looking for a better system to use.
PLUS had intended to conduct transactions at its toll booths through RFID from Jan 15 onwards. But the jams caused by the system’s failure to detect the RFID stickers on cars has raised questions over how soon the transition can truly be made.
The highway concessionaire itself had acknowledged shortcomings in its implementation of RFID at several of its toll plazas.
Meanwhile, complaints have been made about the quality of the stickers, which motorists say are easily damaged and not worth the price of RM35 each.
Many road users are also disappointed by the technology itself which they say is not as good as those used in other countries.
Economist Ahmed Razman Abdul Latiff said the government should also allow other e-wallet operators to provide value-added and RFID services.
“But perhaps there are issues from the contractual or legal standpoint,” the Putra Business School lecturer told MalaysiaNow.
“The big problem is that this service involves the monopoly of Touch ‘n Go.”
Razman said PLUS should work together with CIMB as Touch ‘n Go’s owner to ensure that customers have a choice.
He added that the price of RFID stickers could be drastically reduced if there is competition among a range of operators.
This is not the first time the country has experienced problems concerning highway payment systems.
Prior to 2003, eight out of 15 toll operators in Malaysia did not use Touch ‘n Go as a system of payment.
The Kesas, LDP and SPRINT highways for example used a system known as Fastrak.
Samy Vellu, who was works minister at the time, later announced the use of a single system for all highways.
Several years ago, though, Touch ‘n Go was criticised for not providing enough facilities for PLUS users to top up their credit.
Those who were running on empty were forced to change lanes or to stop their vehicles at the toll plaza in order to top up their cards at kiosks or nearby petrol stations.
Road safety expert Law Teik Hua suggested that Touch ‘n Go scanners be provided at RFID lanes as well as a backup to prevent congestion at toll plazas.
Law, who is director of Universiti Putra Malaysia’s Road Safety Research Centre, said such a step could be taken while waiting for the implementation of RFID to stabilise.
“Cases of vehicles that are unable to pass the toll must be recorded and investigated,” he told MalaysiaNow.
Law’s suggestion is in line with the recent comments by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob who said road users should be given options for payment other that RFID.
Law said RFID technology is in reality far more advanced that the infrared signals used by SmartTAGs. For one, it can be used without the need for devices or batteries.
“RFID has been implemented in Malaysia since 2017,” he said.
His advice is to transition in stages in order to improve the traffic flow at toll plazas.
“This is why cash is no longer accepted at toll plazas,” he added.
“But no study has yet been done to investigate the technical problems that arise with the implementation of the RFID system at toll plazas, in particular the installation of stickers on vehicles and the system reader at the toll lanes.”