An incredible two million people were given a fine in 2016 for using the Dartford Crossing without paying the toll. That equates to 5% of all drivers in the UK, according to new figures released by Highways England.

The bridge and tunnel system connects Essex and Kent both over and under the River Thames. It had human-operated payment booths until 2014, when a number plate recognition software (ANPR) system was introduced to track passing vehicles instead. Motorists now need to pay tolls online. However,  it seems that millions of drivers are forgetting to do so, resulting in millions of unpaid tolls and resultant non-payment fines being issued and then chased by debt collectors.

Malfunctioning systems or deliberate avoidance?

Of those fined, over 200,000 have had their cases escalated and been faced with bailiffs chasing payments. Yet many, like one woman from Leigh-on-Sea, are adamant that they did pay the toll at the time. They are therefore fighting the fines.

The lady in question telephoned before making the crossing in November last year. The adviser told her that because she didn’t have an account set up to make the payment ahead of time, she should set up an account and pay when she arrived at her destination.

She took a short weekend break, passing over the crossing, and then signed up for the ‘autopay’ option on her mobile phone, thinking this would mean a payment was taken. Months later, she has received a bill in the post totalling £190.50, with no explanation as to what it’s for.

The letter came from a debt collection firm called Marston. The driver eventually deduced that it related to the crossing made months ago. The £115.50 fine was supplemented by a £75 ‘compliance stage fee’ – all for a toll that costs £2.50 (or £1.67 if you have an account).

The Dartford Crossing was originally meant to be a free crossing. However, it was announced in 2003 that a toll would apply.

The crossing made £161 million from April 2015 until March 2016, an increase of £61 million on the previous year. Nearly a third of the total income made from the bridge and tunnel system is from enforcement action – a staggering £53 million a year.

A fine problem

Highways England says that the fine for not paying for the crossing fee is £70, due within 14 days. If you pay earlier, it goes down to £35, but increases to £108 after a further 14 days has elapsed. After two months, if you still don’t pay, it can be sent on to one of three enforcement agencies. With automatic number plate recognition cameras all over the bridge and tunnel, toll dodging is impossible.

The driver in question argued that she entered her debit card details on the evening after making the crossing, showing she intended to pay. To make matters worse, previous communications about the fine were sent to her old address after she moved house in December and hadn’t yet updated her log book information. Thus, by the time she received paperwork about the matter, it had reached the debt collection agency level.

Electronic toll systems still flawed

This is just one example of an electronic toll system malfunctioning and leaving drivers facing substantial fines. The firms that operate tolls on UK roads and bridges want to move to fully electronic toll systems to make taking payment more efficient and save on the wage costs of manning toll booths.

However, current electronic systems still have flaws within them, preventing drivers from fully accepting and adopting them. This would explain why most toll roads and bridges around the UK still use cash payment, rather than a complicated online process. Examples of cash-collection tolls include the Humber Bridge, the M6 toll, the Mersey Tunnel and the Tamar Bridge in Plymouth.

In fact, the Dartford Crossing is the only major toll bridge in the UK that doesn’t accept cash. As this case shows, there are clearly still some faults to iron out in the system if the UK is to switch more of its toll roads to this type of system.

An electronic tag system, as employed by the M6 toll in the UK and the Sanef toll system in France, is a better approach. A sensible approach would be for Highways England to impose a universal tag across the UK, making it law that all vehicles (including non-UK vehicles as they arrive in the country) must carry a tag linked to a payment card to drive on UK roads. Toll companies could be obliged to adopt the system. Such a move would resolve all the issues for current and future toll road plans in one fell swoop, but the cost is likely to be the limiting factor in this idea.

What do you think of the Dartford Crossing debacle? Are you one of the two million drivers being chased for fines? What do you think is the best solution to resolve the problem of tolls across the UK? Is one universal system for all roads the answer? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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