Drivers face new surprise 'repair' motorway fees
Drivers are being hit with expensive bills from Highways Agency contractors for emergency repairs. Motorists claim the prices are over-inflated and in some cases they question whether the repairs ever took place.
Sheila Kaur-Patel, who works as a BBC production manager, was shocked when she received an invoice for £3,000 for damage she had allegedly caused during a motorway incident.
Nearly three months earlier she had skidded across the M6 after unexpectedly hitting some liquid on the surface and ended up facing the wrong way on the hard shoulder.
She said: "When the bill arrived, I was devastated. The damages or so-called 'maintenance fees' are worth more than my car."
"The police officer said I was very lucky," she says, "the only damage was a scrape to my bumper."
The police closed the motorway for a matter of minutes so that Sheila could safely turn the car round and continue her journey to see her family.
The charges came from Amey LG Limited, one of several large construction companies which maintain the motorways on behalf of the Highways Agency.
A breakdown of the bill lists items such as a 7.5 tonne tipper hire, repairs to rails and £1,830.91 for the closure of the hard shoulder.
But Sheila insists she has no idea where the idea that any damage was caused has come from. She never saw the tipper or anyone from the company.
Amey LG Limited told Sheila that the bill she received was for inspection work carried out after she left the scene.
A spokesperson for the company told the BBC: "It is important that defects are repaired after an incident to ensure the safety of the travelling public."
"If repairs are necessary, we liaise with any party found to have caused damage to recover the associated costs. A breakdown of these are provided to the relevant parties in an invoice."
The BBC has learned that this is part of a growing trend. Highways Agency contractors are increasingly targeting drivers with expensive bills for repairs.
5 live Investigates has been told of several cases involving drivers who have broken down only to be charged several weeks later for the clear-up of oil spillages.
But when the companies concerned have been challenged about either the level of the charge - in excess of £300 in most cases - or asked to provide evidence of the spill and a breakdown of the charges levied - the amount is reduced or not pursued any further.
This has raised suspicions that some of the bills are not legitimate. In one case, the driver maintains that the oil was cleared by the fire brigade at the time of the breakdown, while another claims that no oil leaked from his car at all.
It is a trend that is surprising those who work on the roads on a daily basis.
"In the past, the charges were never levied," says Paul Watters from the AA. "Now the bills are appearing. We need to know what the policy for charging actually is."
People like Sheila question why individual drivers should have to pay anything. "It makes me wonder what our taxes and road tax actually go on?" she says.
"I would have turned my car around myself if I knew I was going to get charged almost £3,000."
The Highways Agency says when repairs are needed after a breakdown or collision it is not right that the costs should be borne by the taxpayer and therefore they or their contractors will seek to recover the cost of repairs from insurance companies or individuals where appropriate.
The cases above highlight a lack of transparency about what is being charged for, the level of the charge and when someone is liable to pay.
Insurance companies have been a target for motorway maintenance contractors for some time and insurers have frequently questioned some of the discrepancies that appear in the charges.
The rates themselves can vary widely between different companies too.
And the prices seem pretty steep. A recent employee of one of the major road maintenance companies told the BBC that he was stunned that drivers were being sent bills of more than £300 to clear up a small oil spillage.
The job would take just five minutes and the materials used cost as little at £12.50, he said.
It is difficult to say why private Highways Agency maintenance contractors have begun targeting individual drivers.
"It is a new development," says Philip Swift of Claims Management and Adjusting Ltd, which fights claims on behalf of insurance companies.
"We see it from the insurers' perspective. What you are telling me is concerning."
But he and others fear that the situation is about to get a lot worse as maintenance companies implement cuts of around 25% requested by the Highways Agency.
And even more so as the Agency introduces a string of new contracts over the next three years, which are considered to be less lucrative.
Some anticipate that companies may try to recoup some of the lost revenue from the new contracts by cracking down on drivers more aggressively and over-inflating legitimate charges.
"We've geared up for an increase in claims," admits Philip Swift, "and trained additional staff in the claims process."
The Highways Term Maintenance Association (HTMA), which represents a number of the private Highways Agency contractors told the BBC that the accusations being levelled at the industry were 'misleading.'
"HTMA members are dedicated to help and support the everyday motorist, by making sure our roads are safe and disruption is kept to a minimum," a spokesperson said.
"Sometimes we have to clean up after incidents, repairing damage caused by motorists, and sometimes the motorist is asked to pay for the damage they have caused."
"We believe this is absolutely fair… We do not believe that our members would ever abuse their status."