Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Dart Charge Penalty Notice - what you DON’T know!

Received a Dart Charge Penalty notice?

Have you received a Dart Charge Penalty Notice even though you have set up a pre-payment or automatic payment account?  You are not alone.  Are you wondering why you are being fined £70 by Dart Charge when you already have done everything you need to in order for payments to go through automatically each time you use the Dartford Crossing?  I did. Here’s what I had to do to resolve the penalty notice.

dart charge penalty charge notice
Dart Charge Penalty Charge Notice

Dart Charge Penalty Notice  - why did you get fined?

Some time around 2014 all the toll booths on the Dartford Crossing were removed.  In principle this seemed like a good idea.  After all the original agreement when the Dartford Crossing was constructed was that after the crossing had paid for itself (by charging a toll) then there would no longer be a charge for using the bridge or the tunnel.  In fact the charge should have stopped being levied back some time around 2003.  So the Department For Transport was fifteen years late, but hey, better late than never.

But the toll booths on the Dartford Crossing were not removed because there would no longer be a toll charged.  The toll booths were removed because payment would now be taken through the Dart Charge website, which is run by the Department For Transport.  The publicity surrounding the move to online payments made it all sound so simple.  The process running thus:

  1. Sign up for an account on the Dart Charge website
  2. Register your vehicle registration numbers and payment details
  3. Drive over (or under) the Dartford Crossing
  4. Take it easy while the payment toll for your crossing is extracted from your payment method automatically

From a safety perspective removing the toll booths is something I’m in favour of.  The insane race / bundle / inevitable collisions when the many lanes of traffic merged into far fewer lanes is not something any motorists are likely to miss.

So I got a Dartford Crossing penalty charge, where did I go wrong?

I’m going to keep this part of the blog post as simple as possible by breaking it down into two parts.

What I did before I got fined
In 2016 I signed up for a Dart Charge account and entered my payment details (a debit card) and my car registration number.  Between 2016 and 2018 I used the crossing four times.  So there and back twice.  I didn’t receive any penalty notices so thought nothing more of it.  The system worked.  Or so I thought…

How I got fined by Dart Charge
On the 13th June 2019 my band had a gig in Brighton.  So driving from Ipswich to Brighton included a trip over the Dartford Crossing, and then the following day I drove back through the Dartford Tunnel.  I did this safe in the knowledge that my car and payment details were all set up on the Dart Charge website to take the toll for the crossing automatically.

On the 24th June 2019 I received a Penalty Charge Notice from Dart Charge, including the bold, all caps text ‘DO NOT IGNORE’.  I didn’t ignore the fine.  I shrugged it off and assumed there must be some mistake because I KNOW I had the toll covered.

Just to be on the safe side I thought I had better log into my Dart Charge account to ensure my registration number was correct in my account.  When logging in I spotted a notice declaring that the site was in ‘Alpha’ status, meaning there might be a few technical issues.  ‘No shit’ thought I to myself.

I checked my car registration details and they were correct.  There was £5 showing as outstanding in my account.  I thought this was odd but wasn’t too alarmed.  So I checked which debit card I had registered with Dart Charge.  There were no payment details associated with my account.  Oops.  That would nearly explain why no payment had gone through.

Hold on, bear with etc, this is where things get tricksy
I tried entering my payment details six times.  The website fell over six times.  For my day job part of my role is being the person on the other end of sites like this ensuring things keep working.  So I tried a bunch of troubleshooting exercises, like logging out then back in, trying the payment in a different browser.  All sorts.  Nothing worked.  I was unable to add any payment details.  Frustrated I decided that as the site was in Alpha they must still be fixing the payment system and I decided to try again the next day.

The next day I tried entering my payment details again and the system worked perfectly.  Or to be more precise the payment details were recorded by the system adequately.

Despite the fact I now had payment details logged with Dart Charge I could still see no way to clear the £5.00 that my account was declaring I owed.  I even called my wife into the room to check I wasn’t just missing something obvious.  I wasn’t.  There was no ‘pay now’ button or link anywhere on the site once I had logged into my account.

I decided to leave the fine to stew for another day; clearly I was getting nowhere with this new, improved, simple toll payment system.

When I checked my account again the next day my outstanding payment was showing as zero.  I had also received a confirmation of payment email from Dart Charge.  Job done.  Or so I thought…

The second penalty charge notice from Dart Charge
This morning I received a second penalty charge letter through the post.  Yet again the gravity of the situation was expressed to me in grave terms in bold type.  Payment for the crossing had been taken, I even had a receipt with yesterday’s date on it.  Surely I can ignore this letter.  Sadly my dealings with Government departments in the past have made me wary.  I decided I should call Dart Charge just in case.  This is where things got weird and a little confusing.

When I called Dart Charge I was told that I had to pay the £70 fine, although because I was going to pay swiftly this would be reduced to £35.  I told the Department For Transport operative that I had paid for the crossing and had received an email receipt with yesterday’s date on it.

I was informed that the payment I had received a receipt for was for the toll relating to a crossing I made on the 7th October 2018.  So I still owed the toll for the 13th June 2019 crossing.  This crossing was not showing in my Dart Charge account.  Apparently Dart Charge had failed to take payment because the payment card I entered three years ago had expired.  Oops.

At this point I figured it was a fair cop.  Mea Culpa.  So while I had the (admittedly very friendly) operative on the phone I asked for some assistance in paying the fine.  I pointed out that I couldn’t see anywhere in my Dart Charge account that gave me the option to pay a fine.  On top of this confusion my balance was also showing as zero. AND the rogue crossing was not appearing in the list of crossing in my account.

This is when I found out something that I could not have predicted.  In fact I was so surprised by the method for paying the Dart Charge Fine that I’m going to declare the method in a different font, just to emphasise it.

In order to pay your Dart Charge Penalty Notice you need LOG OUT of your Dart Charge account.  When logged out you need to go through the penalty payment process as if you do not have a Dart Charge account.

I know a little bit about website UX (user experience) from to my day job.  Demanding that users log out of their account to perform certain actions is lunacy.  Giving no indication that users are required to log out is frustrating to a level that makes the backs of my eyeballs itch.

So I logged out, went through the penalty payment system and paid my fine.  Only it wasn’t actually a fine, it was just the £5 I still owed for the crossing on the 13th June. Bonkers.

Paying the Dart Charge penalty - conclusions

  1. Don’t assume automatic payments means payments are taken automatically
  2. To pay your Dart Charge fine you need to log out of your Dart Charge account
  3. If you fail to make a payment you might not actually get a penalty charge notice at all (I didn’t get a penalty letter for the lack of payment last October)
  4. If you get a new credit or debit card make sure you update your Dart Charge payment method

And finally…
After I made my payment I searched my emails for messages from Dart Charge and found LOADS.  I have no idea who I missed them.  Although I set up Dart Charge on my personal email address, not my work account.  So the message was easily missed.

I have now set up an alert filter in my personal account to flag up any messages from Dart Charge.

Well I hope this post has been helpful to you.  If so please feel free to buy me a pint...

Monday, April 15, 2019

If you play in a band the world shrinks

This short article was originally published in 'Lights Go Out' zine in January 2016

When I was fifteen or sixteen I played in a band with my best mates in the village I grew up in (Wickham Market). Somehow, despite not knowing any other bands, we got a gig supporting a band called The Red Dress at Leiston leisure centre. 

We had a brilliant time. I remember drinking Merrydown cider and all of us running around like loons in the dressing room next to the stage. In our own minds we had 'made it'. This amused The Red Dress greatly, in the nicest possible way. They were like bemused but tolerant older brothers. 

We were massively out of our depth with this gig.  I had put on a bunch of gigs in village halls but had never played at someone else's gig. We had never played through anything other than a small vocal PA, this gig had a full PA. Just playing with a band who had instruments made by brands I'd heard of was incredibly exciting. I seem to remember the bassist playing a Gibson Grabber (or Ripper). Years later I would own a succession of Gibson basses; when I saw Red Dress play I thought the Gibson bass was the coolest thing I had seen in my entire life. 

For reasons that escape me, and memory fails to recollect, the rest of my band left me behind in Leiston after the gig.  There's a chance I was told that there was simply no space for me. Cheers best mates. Naturally I was freaked out by this, I was just a kid and this was a long time before mobile phones. I had no idea where the nearest pay phone was. The only way I'd be getting home would be walking for around four hours to get home. Through the dark Suffolk countryside, and let me tell you, that is proper darkness. 

The guys in The Red Dress were really nice to me, even although I was just some dumb kid. I'm the end they gave me a lift home, for which I was incredibly grateful. I bought their tape at the gig and listened to it a LOT. In my mind they were a proper grown up band, something I found incredibly aspirational. 

I have stayed on friendly nodding terms the singer of The Red Dress, one Phil Redmon ever since, but I never figured out who the super friendly bassist and drummer were. 

A few months ago I decided the skateboard I'd been falling off for the last twenty years was long overdue to be replaced. Friends recommended I visit Hardcore Hobbies in Bury St. Edmunds. So I did. I got chatting to the fella who was serving me and it turned out he was Jay from The Volunteers. The Volunteers have been a big part of the Suffolk punk rock scene for many years and as are respected as they are loved. As we chatted it turned out we had many mutual friends, which is normal when two people in bands get chatting with each other. 

This morning I was idly browsing the Hardcore Hobbies website, pondering whether I should protect what's left of my brains with a helmet, when I landed on the staff profiles page. Reading through Jay's profile I wasn't hugely surprised to find he'd been in a ton of bands over the years. Hey, haven't we all. What I didn't know was that Jay was in The Red Dress. 

So cheers for the lift, sorry it's taken me about twenty five years to say thank you!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Brexit timeline - the animated meme thing

Brexit is here.  Whether any of us actually wanted it or not, it is here.  While I appreciate that for the rest of the world Brexit isn't a big deal, it has dominated the media here in the UK for the past two or three years.  Regardless of whether people actually want the UK to leave the EU or not, people on both sides of the argument agree that Brexit has been one of the biggest farces ever to dominate UK politics.

So I made a GIF.  Or at least I tried to, in the end I couldn't figure out how to make a gif smaller than 200mb so I made an MP4 and shoved it at YouTube instead.

I have no idea what the original source for this video is because I found it on Reddit.