Free-flow tolling, where cameras read your number plate and you're expected to pay for your journey before or after you travel rather than by stopping at a toll booth, has been in operation at the Dartford Crossing for the last couple of years, meaning there are no toll booths and it's possible to forget to pay the toll. What happens then? Don't worry, we have the answers.
If there's a row of toll booths and barriers across the road, it's easy to pay the toll. You stop and you hand over some money. The only way to avoid paying is to dramatically smash through the barrier, like something in a movie chase sequence, and if you do that some nice people in uniforms will probably catch you up pretty quickly and you'll be asked to settle your bill anyway. But with free-flow tolling, where there are no toll booths, you need to spot the signs explaining the toll and remember to pay either before or after your journey. That's the system now in operation on the A282 Dartford Crossing, the new Mersey Gateway Bridge and the London Congestion Charge.
Of course, some people will sometimes forget. Some people will not understand the signs on their first trip. Some people will have other things on their mind. Some people, perhaps including someone who runs a prominent website about the British road network, will simply be the sort of absent-minded fool who has enough trouble remembering people's names and what day of the week it is, and who will only remember they have a toll to pay when it's too late.
This post is intended to act as a guide to the Dartford Crossing payment system but does not constitute legal advice.
What are the rules?
Crossing the Thames at Dartford is tolled in both directions. You'll see signs on the approach, and at the crossing itself, with the red disc "C" symbol, indicating that a congestion charge applies. The toll charges are also listed on the final approach.
For each crossing, you must pay the toll, and as part of the payment process you'll be asked for your vehicle registration number. Cameras on the road automatically read and log the registration of every vehicle.
- You can pay it in advance, so that when you cross the system records that you have paid and no further action is taken.
- You can pay after you cross, in which case the system logs your registration number and awaits payment. You must pay the toll by midnight the following day - so if, for example, you cross on a Monday, you have until the end of Tuesday evening to pay.
- You can set up an account with Dart Charge, linked to a credit or debit card, so the toll is automatically paid without you needing to take further action. Local residents can set up an account to receive a discount.
This is not the official Dart Charge website
For information about the Dartford Crossing tolls, a list of toll charges, and to pay online, please visit the official Dart Charge website.
If you did pay for the crossing, but you did it after midnight the following day, it won't count - you still need to specifically pay the PCN and your toll payment will count towards your next crossing instead. To pay it online, you need to select "pay or challenge a PCN", not "make a one-off payment". The PCN system will then ask you to pay the regular crossing charge. We've heard several accounts from people who found the PCN and letter were not very clear and who didn't realise they had to pay in this way.
In other words - receiving the warning letter and accompanying PCN means you have to pay again, no matter whether you have paid the toll in the normal way, and if you don't the PCN will be progressed to a £105 fine, and then potentially to court.
The next time you fail to pay
The first time you fail to pay, Dart Charge give you the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, on all subsequent occasions, if the first PCN was not enough to jog your memory as you sail over the QEII Bridge, you will be issued with a standard PCN notice a week later asking you to pay a £70 fine, discounted to £35 if you pay within two weeks. When you go to pay the PCN, you will be charged the fine plus the original cost of the crossing.
Again, paying the toll late will not prevent this happening. If you haven't paid by midnight the day after your crossing, a PCN is issued. Late payments do not appear to be taken into account at all, and even if you have paid the toll late, you will still be charged the PCN plus the cost of a crossing. Any toll payment you have made that is not counted in this way is not lost, and instead counts towards a future crossing.
If you still don't pay
Once you have a PCN in your hand, you have the right to challenge it in the normal way, but after 14 days the applicable fine goes up to £70, and if you haven't paid or started a challenge, another two weeks later it goes up again to £105. As with any PCN, failure to pay that final amount will then see it registered as a debt in the County Court.
The bottom line is that it's best to simply remember to pay the toll when you cross. And if you're as forgetful as I evidently am, then paying in advance or setting up an account may be the best way to keep yourself out of trouble. Otherwise, you will land yourself with a nice collection of letters that are only really any use if you want to write a blog post about what happens if you fail to pay the toll at Dartford.
Comments on this post will be moderated - this is not the place to let off steam about whether a toll should apply at Dartford.
Hmm. My first and only time (so far) going across the new Mersey Gateway, I completely forgot about paying until two days later. I was expecting the old bridge and it totally caught me by surprise: I hadn't realised the new one was even open! Their website didn't seem to offer much advice, and couldn't even tell me if anything was owing. I paid for a trip anyway, just in case, and thankfully haven't heard anything more..
At least with the Dart Charge, you can now set up a pay-as-you-go account. They need to do that with the Mersey Gateway. It's very draconian if you forget to pay.
Thank you for doing the time-consuming research here! ;-)
Small typo in the "first time" section: missing "as" in "just the same speeding tickets"
One thing not so far discussed is that the whole enforcement system relies on your V5C registration document being up-to-date with name and address. Over on the Pepipoo.com forum lots of threads on parking and other traffic PCNs appear where the poster has not updated his/her V5 after a house move, and the first they hear of anything is bailiffs knocking at their door wanting several hundred pounds ! Updating your driver licence does NOT update your V5 !!
What's the rule for ignorant foreigners who have no idea about this and are driving a rental car from, for example, Heathrow airport?
If I'd not found this site I'd not have known how to pay the toll and been very confused!
The hire company gets the bill, pays it and takes the money from the hirer, usually with a whacking great admin charge that near doubles the cost. It's one of the things you agree to when you sign the hire paperwork.
I live in France and was surprised to learn that DartCharge is operated by the French motorway company Sanef (Société des Autoroute du Nord et de l'Est de la France) - I wonder why they don't use the same technology in tolls on their motorway network (although queues are rare outside of the manic summer Saturdays).
French drivers who travel to England are not well informed about this system. I registered with DartCharge as soon as it was set up and now my payments are automatic as I use it a couple of times a year and the system can definitely identify my French registration number. The only problem was when I changed my credit card and quickly got an e-mail asking me to change my payment details (which I had to do over the phone). But my colleague did not register with the system and used it a number of times and she said she did not pay. I'm not sure the system actually has access to the French registration number database (equivalent to DVLA) so cannot issue PCNs.
I once crossed the QEII bridge and returned on the Dartford tunnel back in 2015, I forgot about it until 3 days later. I paid the fee online and rang up the number and explained. The person I spoke to said that they don't get the data for a few days but could see I'd paid and said it was OK, but this was 2015 so I don't know whether it changed. However I did write to my MP, on 23/9/15 I wrote the following:
Dear Mr Harrington,
I would like for you to raise an issue regarding the recent change to how the tolls are paid for making the Thames crossing at Dartford.
As it stands the lanes are open and the onus is upon the driver of the vehicle to pay the crossing charge by midnight the following day. However, in cases where a driver genuinely forgets to do this but does nevertheless pay the charge a couple of days later, the system is designed to be over-punitive towards such drivers. The charging goes from £2.50 per crossing to a large fine in the matter of some hours which I would consider grossly unfair.
Would it be possible for you to suggest a change to this procedure where if the payment isn't paid within the current timespan, that a reminder letter is sent to the driver where the fee is simply doubled to cover the cost of the letter. Then if the driver does not respond after x number of days, then apply a fine?
I would like to hear your opinion on this matter and whether it has some merit considering that it is entirely possible that a driver, particularly those who live a long way from London, may not understand or as in my case simply forget to pay within the current timescale.
On 13/10/15 I got the following reply:
Thank you for your email and for raising this with me.
The Dart Charge system was introduced to alleviate queues and traffic flow around the area. Issues with it were raised recently in parliament, by the Members for Thurrock and Dartford with Transport Ministers and the Secretary of State so I do think that at the highest levels there is attention to this. It does seem to be helping with congestion, however there are estimates that 2.1 million PCNs will be given out at the crossing in its first year, a lot of that will be from people who aren’t quite used to the system yet, but that is a huge amount.
I will write to Transports Ministers with your suggestion today and let you know as soon as they reply.
He never wrote again on the matter but the article does suggest that you get a first time warning, which I don't know whether it would have been the case in 2015, so maybe my letter to my MP was partly taken on board.
I recently discovered I'd made the opposite mistake - when my wife changed her car, I forgot to update the details on my direct debit via the gov.uk website and as a result, someone who used the tunnel and the bridge will have got themselves a free return crossing. Isn't that sweet of me?