Income reported by the operators of the Dartford Crossing on the M25 grew substantially last year. This was partly due to increased numbers of users, but also because of higher “enforcement” activity – chasing up people who fail to pay.
In fact the numbers who don’t pay are very large, and as a result the fines issued were 45% of the total income. There were 48,491,894 users in 2017 but 2,045,840 did not pay in advance. Even though first-time users who don’t pay are only issued with a warning letter and given more time to pay, this generates £92 million in enforcement income.
The numbers mean that about 5% fail to pay as required, although that is better than the 10% that applied in the first few months the free-flow system was in operation. Bearing in mind that such systems are likely to be used for new Thames crossings at Blackwall (the Silvertown Tunnel) and further down river, it is necessary to consider whether it is fair and reasonable to operate such systems.
There also seems to be a particular problem with non-UK registered vehicles where the compliance rate was only 82%. There was also £50 million in charges and penalties that had to be written off as uncollectable, many of whom were no doubt foreign drivers.
Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, was quoted in publication LTT as saying: “No one using the Dartford Crossing looks back with nostalgia at the days when payment involved throwing coins into a basket. Users of the crossing might well question the eye-wateringly large sums coming in as penalty charges resulting from enforcement action – at £92m that’s more than the total paid by account holders, and is up by 50% over 2015/16.
“Looked at as management information, such a high level of enforcement action suggests something is going very wrong with the message to road users, many of whom may well think the prominently displayed congestion charge ‘C’ signs relate to the nearby London scheme rather than the crossing itself.
“While the cognoscenti readership of Local Transport Today might recognise the fine distinction between a charge and a toll, perhaps it is time for Highways England to revert to the latter as terminology most drivers – domestic and international – would understand.”
One cannot but agree with him, but I don’t think improving the signage would assist. People expect the road network to be free to use, and quite rightly. How can someone from France, or the North of England, be expected to know about this system?
The tolls should be removed as was promised by the Government years ago, just like they have been on the Severn Crossing and on others.