Small price to pay to cut crossing delay

New Dartford Crossing payment methods mean getting across without getting cross, says motoring editor Andy Russell.

It was one of those journeys – I knew roughly where I was going but the actual route had not crossed my mind. A couple of hours before setting off I used an online route planner to check out distance and timings. My heart sank.

I had not realised I was going to have to use the Dartford Crossing. Not that I have anything against the Dartford Crossing – I love the views from the bridge and don’t mind the thought of all that Thames water above me when in the tunnels – but I have not had to use it since the new payment methods came in.

Toll payment booths were scrapped at the bridge on the M25 on November 30, with online, phone and postal payment methods introduced to a new set-up called Dart Charge. You can no longer just roll up and throw a handful of coins in a basket or handover your cash or credit card.

If you don’t pre-pay, to make life easier, you have until midnight the following day to pay after making a crossing. If you don’t pay at all it’s a £70 penalty, reduced to £35 if paid within 14 days but rising to £105 if not received within 28 days.

I went online at Dart Charge, filled in my return journey and put £5 on my card – it’s now £2.50 each way instead of £2 but there are discounts for regular users. It took a couple of minutes and as soon as I logged off my email receipt arrived – I was impressed.

Imagine my glee when, in the morning rush-hour (assuming it is any worse then than at any other time of the day), I sailed over the bridge and, with the old toll booths gone in that direction, carried on along the M25 without stopping. It all went so smoothly I began to fear I had missed something. I used to work on 20 minutes to cross the bridge and pay sometimes.

Coming back the other way, where the toll booths are still currently there, the traffic flowed up to them at a reasonable pace and even though each vehicle has to stop for the barrier to lift –- even though no payment changes hands – the traffic kept moving for over final couple of hundred metres and off we went again.

Not quite as quick towards the tunnel but a huge improvement and, given my patience, well worth the extra 50p each way – probably saved that in fuel!

The full benefits of the new system will be felt in spring when the roadworks are finished, the rest of the toll booths gone and a new safety system built to stop over-sized or non-compliant vehicles from using the tunnel – then it’ll be so slick and quick they’ll also have to put in speed cameras!

Charging hours are between 6am and 10pm daily – it’s still free to use the crossing outside these hours.

From the phone calls I had received from motorists about the changes, I wasn’t the only one concerned but I don’t mind change when it is for the better.


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Motoring editor Andy Russell is right on track for the start of the new Formula One season.

Sky’s limit for Brundle’s ultimate F1 circuit.

Motor racing memories, good and bad, were revived ahead of the Australian Grand Prix

The 2015 Formula One season roars into life with the first race on Sunday at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

It reminded me how, when our two young sons were young, they used to set an alarm so they could watch the race live. Only problem is, being Down Under on the other side of the world, the race is in the middle of the night!

So about 3am two excited boys would switch on our TV in the bedroom, climb into our bed and elbow my wife and I every time we showed signs of nodding off.

Motoring racing led to a love to building Scalextric circuits around the living room, as we became more adventurous and acquired more track, but it was nothing compared to Sky Sports F1 expert and Norfolk racing driver Martin Brundle’s design for the Ultimate 2015 circuit brought to life by Scalextric – the biggest layout the slot car track experts have ever created.

Commissioned by Sky Sports, the only place fans can watch all 20 Formula One weekends live, the 9m by 9m track features parts from all 20 circuits on this season’s FIA Formula One World Championship calendar.

The track is made up of 177 pieces and is 45 metres long. It features the best corners, chicanes and sections from the 2015 F1 calendar that fans can watch live on Sky Sports F1 throughout the season, including:

Italy and the Ascari Chicane.

Monaco and the Casino Square.

Canada and the Wall of Champions.

Silverstone and the Copse.

Abu Dhabi and the Marina Complex.

Mr Brundle said: “The team challenged me to design my dream circuit using sections from the 20 F1 races in 2015, all of which will be live on Sky Sports F1. I immediately wanted a figure of ‘8’ like our beloved Suzuka, and could only dream of driving a series of corners such as scaling the mountain up to turn one in Austin before falling through the ‘Senna S’ of Brazil and towards Silverstone’s fearsome Copse corner. And that’s just a small section. Now amazingly, we’ve built a model and so I will revert to my childhood for many laps. It’s going to get competitive.”

Scalextric’s latest creation is a bespoke commission for Sky Sports. The track pieces making up the Ultimate 2015 Circuit will be available to buy from priced around £1,000. The slot car experts looked to their revolutionary Arc One (app race control) design as the inspiration for the Ultimate 2015 circuit. A wireless slot car system it connects to a handheld smart device, such as a smartphone or tablet. Users download the free Arc app, then connect via Bluetooth to the new Arc powerbase, bringing the real and virtual worlds together for the ultimate in racing fun.


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Mind the gap parking or you’re in tight spot

There’s a real squeeze on decent parking spots – motoring editor Andy Russell says it’s another reason to down-size your car.

More and more drivers are down-sizing cars to cut their running costs. That’s for sure but I have another theory – it’s because they’re fed up driving round and round car parks trying to find a space they can fit into.

You can be the best driver in the world with all the latest parking assist aids to guide, slide and drive you automatically in and out of the tightest spot but it’s not a lot of use if you can’t actually open the car doors to get out – there was a time you could at least climb out of the sunroof in an emergency! Multi-storey car parks seem to be even worse with the added hazards of concrete posts and structures to negotiate too.

There’s no denying most cars are growing with each generation – it is said the current Volkswagen Polo is a similar size to the Mark I Golf and there wasn’t a lot between the original Ford Ka and the first Fiesta. I knew someone who had three different generations of the same make and model and, with the last one, had to fold in the driver’s door mirror to get it into his garage – that’s another issue with cars getting wider with narrow older garage doors.

Growing vehicle size is a significant issue for car park owners and drivers, leading to frustration of not finding a space big enough or your car being damaged by other drivers misjudging the space or dinging your car when opening their doors.

My two sons, when young, used to laugh at me driving round a car park looking for a space where I was less likely to get clunked or clonked by another vehicle. It is interesting, now they have their own cars, they tend to do the same self-preservation parking. I could say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it but that seems the wrong expression as it is exactly what we are trying to avoid!

With many modern cars up to 20% wider than when most parking spaces were laid out, a standardised new car park space is needed and there are calls for SizeMark – an industry standard car park space size based on the dimensions of modern cars – to be introduced.

On the subject of car parking spaces and problems, Tony Hatch contacted me to say it appeared the standard car park bay in the UK is about 4.75m by 1.8m which is much too small even for the small car which are often two-door models. Allowing suitable clearances all round, right-angled car parking bays should be 4.8m by 2.5m minimum, with a manoeuvering width of 6.5m minimum behind.

“I have noticed that parking bays have been reducing in size over the past 30 years, making it very difficult to manoeuvre and open doors to squeeze out or in so as not to damage an adjacent car. This problem is accentuated in the case of the two-door car as these doors are wider to allow access to the rear seating. Some allowance needs to be made for the larger person and those not so agile.

“I make a point of avoiding car parks with narrow parking spaces and opt to park on the roadside when possible. I look forward to the day of wider parking bays but will this ever happen? If it does, I will certainly make a beeline for those car parks.”

And Ian Cruttenden said it wasn’t helped by some drivers ignoring no-entry signs and one-way white markings in the roadways on car parks while many of the aisles were too narrow and confined.

He said a solution might be to arrange car parking spaces at a 30 to 45-degree angle to the roadway to make it easier to park and reverse out – with no possibility of going the wrong way along the roadway.

Watch this space… hopefully!

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Clearly case of poor sight rather than bad light driving at night

Making sure your eyesight is up to scratch for driving is brought into sharp focus for motoring editor Andy Russell.

You may not realise your sight is not as sharp as it should be until you have an eye test

My wife had been complaining the headlights on her MINI were not as bright as they should be when on dipped beam on dark country roads.

As the dutiful husband, I’ve made sure they are clean and the bulbs are as bright as they should be.

Even though I know I am normally wrong, I even took her car out on unlit roads at night but could find nothing amiss with them. They seemed no different than they had been for the last three years.

It had even got to the stage where I was considering talking to the dealership about whether we could upgrade to brighter bulbs or lights if it made her feel safer and happier.

But then my wife drove me one night in her car and I noticed we were travelling at no more than 40mph on a road that was safe at 60mph in the dark.

When I asked her why we were travelling slowly she explained that the lights were not bright enough to go any faster. That’s when I thought it might be a case of her sight rather than lack of bright light.

Having had her eyes tested 18 months earlier, and not due for her two-yearly check-up, she booked an eye test to be on the safe side.

She was quite alarmed to find how much her prescription had changed – she actually now needs varifocal lenses which explains why she was peering over her glasses to read!

Road safety organisation GEM Motoring Assist says better regulation of eyesight tests for drivers would cut collisions and make Britain’s roads safer.

GEM says a detailed test of a driver’s visual acuity and field of view should be required every 10 years.

Chief executive David Williams said: “Speeding, drink or drug-driving, driving unlicensed… these are responsible for a fraction of the crashes on our roads compared with failing to look properly, according to all the official data.”

The eyesight test was introduced to the driving test in 1937 and has only been amended in minor ways over the years to reflect changing number plate sizes. It is the only eyesight test drivers are required to have until the age of 70.

According to GEM, the test is crude and outdated, as it measures only visual acuity (sharpness). It could also quite easily examine a driver’s field of view, as in many American states, to check whether motorists can see and react to what’s happening around them.

My wife’s new glasses cost about the same as our insurance excess – had she had an accident – but saved the expense of new headlights!

Twitter @andyrussellauto

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Complete colour turnaround whiter than white for car sales

Some car-makers have used the rising popularity of white cars to launch special edition models such as this Kia Picanto White.

White’s all right again when it comes to the top car colour and it has grown on motoring editor Andy Russell.

For years I had a real aversion to white cars and it went far deeper than many people’s assertion that “they show all the dirt”.

I recalled my early dislike of white cars when it was revealed it was the most popular car colour for the second year running, accounting for one in five new cars last year. Quite remarkable when you consider that 10 years ago less than 1% of UK new car buyers chose white.

The first car I can remember my parents driving was a three-door white Ford Cortina Mark I and one Christmas, when they really were white and I was still in a child’s car seat, Dad slid off the icy road, up a bank and the car rolled over on to its side. No one was hurt but for years it put me off white cars.

As for showing the dirt, any car does if you don’t clean it but there is something pure and clinical about a gleaming, newly-polished white car and they do stand out… in anything but a blizzard!

My attitude to white cars changed while visiting family in Australia when our hire car, along with so many privately-owned ones, was white – until coated in dust – because they reflect the sun’s heat.

Now I have taken a shine to white cars which really show off chrome and black and silver trim and embellishments. And a white soft-top with a dark red hood is a ray of sunshine – whatever the weather.

I was struck back in 2007 that more and more car-makers were choosing white cars for their publicity pictures and it was interesting that demand for white cars saw exponential growth from 2008 to 2012, with registerations growing from 1.1% in 2007 to 20.9% in 2012.

White was the most popular colour for new cars in the UK in 2014 for the second year running, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Of 2,476,435 new cars registered last year, 22.2% were white – the highest proportion since records began in 1996.

The colour’s record-breaking popularity follows a strong upturn in the uptake of white cars, over the past decade. In 2010, white cars accounted for just under 10% of new car registrations, making it the sixth most popular car colour, with black and silver cars the best-selling. Five years earlier, it was less than 1%.

Last year, black cars took second place with 19% followed by grey at 14% of the market. Silver – the second most popular colour in 2010 with almost a quarter of registrations – has now slipped to sixth place at 13%.

White became the UK’s most popular choice in 2013, but for many years it was one of the least-favoured choices of car colours.

It has been helped by several manufacturers creating black and white special editions but also by the fact that solid white is a standard colour and some company car drivers will choose a solid colour rather than pay extra for a metallic option so increasing their benefit-in-kind tax burden.

You could call this colour change a whiter shade of sale!


Tyre pressure alert bit of a blow

I had a car with a tyre pressure monitoring system (TPMS) during a recent cold snap. Everything was fine when I drove it home from the office but the next morning the warning light came on and, checking the system, revealed all four tyres were underinflated.

Bearing in mind the pressures would have been checked the previous day in the press fleet garage there was no way all four tyres could have gone down so I did a little research.

Weather affects tyre pressures – hot weather may cause them to rise, cold weather to fall, even more so if parked outside.

You should check pressures, and set the TPMS, when the tyres are cold but it’s worth doing when they are at their coldest – probably first thing in the morning. TPMS is not an alternative to checking the pressure and condition of your tyres.

Most tyres can handle higher pressures resulting from driving and in hot weather, provided they were set at the correct pressure when cold.

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Honk for bright red car conk all for good cause

Press fleet test cars are often seriously kitted out with optional extra but a red nose was a first for motoring editor Andy Russell.

A Comic Relief red nose is not the usual optional extra on Toyota press fleet cars.

Test cars from the manufacturers’ press fleets often to come with several tasty optional extras… to show them off and create a good impression.

But I was amazed to find a big Comic Relief red nose on the front of a Lexus NX 300h in our car park. I actually walked past it because I did not think it would be a test car. It wasn’t until I the indicators flashed when I press the remote control that I believed it.

Toyota, of which Lexus is a part, is obviously having a bit of fun with motoring journalists by putting red noses on all its press fleet cars to mark it being an official partner of this year’s Comic Relief Red Nose Day on Friday, March 13 and trying to raise £1m.

With a stern warning not to remove the nose from the test car, there was a new one still in the packet on the front seat for me to buy for a minimum £5 donation and satisfy my ‘want it now’ urge… I did willingly.

Toyota’s UK businesses are committed to bringing in as much money as possible to support the work of Comic Relief through events and activities across the country that capture Red Nose Day’s spirit of fun and fund-raising.

The official 2015 stand-out scarlet schnozzles are available exclusively from Toyota’s UK dealerships, or can be ordered with a couple of clicks online at Toyota’s official UK eBay store –

The price is just £5 per nose with every penny of that goes to straight Comic Relief’s grants programme.

And don’t forget, these noses aren’t just for Toyotas, they will look just as great on any make or model you choose.



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Why, given option, heated car seats get cold shoulder from me


Motoring editor Andy Russell comes up with some of his hot options for a car… but heated seats aren’t one of them.


With the new 15 registration plate arriving on March 1, many people will be thinking of changing their car.

On a recent launch, myself and another motoring hack were discussing the increasingly extensive list of options and customising kit available to tailor a car to your needs and tastes.

It all used to be so easy – stripes, spotlamps, mudflaps and floor mats was the order of the day when I was young.

Now the brochures for all those options and accessories seem to have as many pages as the ones for the cars themselves.

Anyway, while driving the new Volkswagen Passat – a car that comes with a lot of class and creature comforts as standard – we discussed what we’d be prepared to pay extra for if we were shelling out our own hard-earned cash.

Safety plays a big part in any buying choice now and there are some excellent accident-avoidance systems out there to detect vehicles in your blindspot and even stop the car if you are not paying attention or another vehicle pulls out or pedestrian steps in front of you.

Hi-tech head-up displays are an attractive convenience and safety feature but the thought of heated seats leaves Andy Russell cold

We also decided we like those traffic sign monitoring systems which flash up the speed limit on the instrument cluster in case you have missed the sign.

And jet fighter-style head-up displays which project essential information, such as speed and instructions from built-in sat-nav systems, on to a screen on top of the dashboard, so it appears to be floating over the front of the bonnet, allow you to keep your eyes on the road and take in data without being distracted.

And if a digital DAB radio was not standard I would happily pay more to have all those extra stations.

So they’re all on the wish list then, but what would I not pay extra for?

Bigger wheels for a start. They may fill out the wheelarches and look good but they often have lower-profile tyres so ride comfort suffers and there is more road noise – my ‘boy-racer’ days are long gone.

And heated seats – the bane of my life and a positive pain in the posterior.

I find that feeling of getting warm round the nether regions rather disconcerting. And I clearly never got over being told that if I sat on a hot radiator on a cold day I would get piles!

I’ll happily put up with a numb bum but when my wife sees the heated seat buttons she’s quite content to roast her rear even in the height and heat of summer.

Sometimes she presses the wrong button or both of them so, without warning, I get a warm feeling which is even more worrying.

And don’t get me started on heated steering wheels – they really leave me cold. You really don’t need one if you’re wearing your string-back driving gloves!


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On your marks, get set… go


With a £6bn purge on potholes, motoring editor Andy Russell hopes there will be some money left to sort out disappearing, dangerous road markings.

A third of motorists put tackling the pothole problem at the top of their wish list and 2015 will see a start to the dream becoming reality.

The government has earmarked a record £6bn fund for potholes and local road improvements over the next six years. And, although the Local Government Association says “there is still a very long way to go to bring the nation’s roads up to scratch”, it has to be seen as progress in the right direction.

I hope it will also mean some of the disappearing road markings on well-worn stretches of highway also being repainted and refreshed.

I, like many motorists, have noticed how white lines, directional arrows and other warnings on the road have been fading or wiped out by crumbling surfaces and a patchwork of minor repairs.

It’s all right if you know where you are going but can be a hazard when in a strange town or city.

Between Christmas and new year, my wife and I visited our son in Bradford and barely-visible road markings on the approach to many multi-lane roundabouts proved particularly wearing to me too when I found myself in the wrong lane.

It wasn’t helped by a late-reacting satellite-navigation system that seemed confused by the terms ‘turn left’, ‘bear left’ and ‘straight on’. But at least I helped confuse it by bearing what I thought was left only to end up at a huge car park in the dark which, with so many aisles and no entry signs, left me disorientated.

Back to the road maintenance funding, the Department for Transport estimates the £976m yearly investment will be enough to fill about 18 million potholes across the country but councils say the cash will not cover the overall funding gap on road repairs.

The east of England has been allocated £644.6m to support long-term maintenance scheduling rather than short-term fixes.

More than £4.7bn will be shared between 115 councils, while another £575m will be available through a challenge fund for maintaining infrastructure such as junctions, bridges and street lighting.

An incentive fund of £578m will also open in 2016 to reward councils delivering value in carrying out cost-effective improvements.

Let’s hope it’s the road to recovery.

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