Fleet and leasing company concerns about the new payment regime for the Dartford Crossing will be included in a report on the new system.
Figures from Highways England reveal that, in the first seven months since the system was introduced in November 2014, 950,000 penalty charge notices (PCNs) had been issued as of June 20 for non-payment.
The report, which is being compiled by the Traffic Penalty Tribunal, will analyse issues that have emerged in Dart Charge appeals heard to-date. It is also planning to discuss the system with fleet representative body ACFO and the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA).
Fleet News, on behalf of its readers, has already highlighted a raft of concerns to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal and its final report is expected to be published in September.
To-date more than 700 appeals have been received, although many have been subsequently settled either by payment of the charge or the fee being waived.
Chief adjudicator Caroline Sheppard told Fleet News that she believed the sending of warning letters, which give drivers 14 days to pay the fee and have the PCN cancelled, had “successfully stemmed a potential tidal wave of appeals”.
The PCN is sent to a vehicle’s registered keeper – typically a leasing company for fleet vehicles – which may pay the bill and charge the customer an additional administration fee or provide client details.
“We will be questioning whether lease and fleet companies have passed the warning letters onto drivers, many of whom have also complained about the administration charges,” continued Sheppard.
Dart Charge was launched by the then Highways Agency in November, 2014, to help improve traffic flow thanks to the removal of the barrier payment system.
It appointed French company Sanef to design and operate the scheme on its behalf on a £367 million seven-year contract, with the option of a three-year extension.
An average of 160,000 vehicles per day use the Dartford Crossing and early indications show that average journey times have improved by nine minutes southbound and more than four minutes northbound, with Highways England suggesting journey times will improve further when road works are completed this summer.
But fleets have highlighted a catalogue of concerns with the Dart Charge website, including problems with updating driver information and the lack of a vehicle registration search facility, along with inadequate signage explaining the new payment regime.
A Highways England spokesman said: “The vast majority of the 20m payments for journeys have been processed quickly and without any issues, and more than 800,000 people are now using Dart Charge accounts.”
However, he added: “We take customer service very seriously and we apologise to everyone who has experienced difficulties with payments. We are working with our supplier Sanef to make immediate improvements to prevent cases like these from happening in the future.”
Simon Watts, fleet manager at East Sussex-based Rydon, has 60-70 vehicles of its 350-strong fleet listed on a Dart Charge account.
Dartford Crossing payments are typically recharged to one of five of the company’s cost centres and sometimes back to a contract level.
That means it is essential for Watts to be able to access vehicle, driver and payment details.
“A search facility would be a big start so we don’t trawl through pages of vehicles,” he said. “Introducing a series of filters would make the user experience so much easier and would greatly assist administration, particularly with apportioning charges to individual cost centres.
“A link to Dartford Crossing vehicle and driver history would also be useful, instead of that record disappearing as soon as a statement is issued.”
All Fleet Services has processed more than 5,000 Dart Charges over the past three months. Managing director David Scobie said the online payment system has been “challenging”.
“We have had to now use multiple credit cards to overcome the safety mechanism designed to stop multiple transactions in a short period of time on the same card,” he said. “It is also fair to say we have experienced significant delays in resolution of disputes and refunds.”
Scobie told Fleet News that All Fleet Services has been working with customers by transferring liability using the BVRLA’s memorandum of understanding. He said: “We are hoping this will stop the rejections previously experienced.”
However, he added: “The increased volume, backlogs and challenging processes have definitely taken their toll.”
A number of BVRLA members have expressed concerns about the payment regime and resulting PCNs. BVRLA director of policy Jay Parmar said: “Members have reported that their back office staff are now spending a third of their penalty charge notice administration time on Dart Charge payments. This has a huge knock-on effect, as this task is something they weren’t doing 12 months ago.”
Dartford MP Gareth Johnson is calling on the Government to stop payments to Sanef until problems have been resolved.
“Since the Dart Charge system was introduced it has been woefully inadequate. I have had hundreds of people contact me who are deeply frustrated,” he said.
“I have already called on the Department of Transport to withhold payments to Sanef, and I urge them again to do so.
“Motorists need to be able to trust the system and yet that is not currently the case.
“There must be proper administration of the sys- tem and, until that happens, there should be financial penalties against Sanef.”
Meanwhile, CLM has highlighted how drivers have even been getting confused as to where they should be making payments.
Simon Cotton, general manager at the fleet management company, said: “The symbol ‘C’ that denotes it can easily be confused with the London Congestion Charge and we’ve had cases of drivers paying the Congestion Charge thinking they have paid the Dart Charge.”
For drivers without a pre-pay account, payment needs to be made by midnight the day after a crossing has been made.
A poll by parking firm APH has shown 54% of motorists want more time to pay toll charges at the Dartford crossing. But, appreciative of the improvement in travel times brought about by the automatic charging, just 16% favoured a return to tolls being collected by staff in booths, while options that more information should be published in the press or sent with DVLA reminders were also shunned; with just 3% and 2%, respectively, in favour.
There was some overt support for the new system, however, with 3% of those who took the poll suggesting that drivers should stop moaning, take responsibility and get used to the new system.
ACFO, which will have Simon Sheldon-Watson, director of customer operations at Highways England, at its seminar – A Day at the Taxes – on September 18, has urged members to report any Dart Charge issues.
Highways England has published a two-page guide to the Dartford Crossing, which includes payment information.
To download the leaflet, click here.