Tyne Tunnel bosses have defended their under-fire fines system after thousands of people signed a petition calling for it to be scrapped.

The crossing made the switch to a cashless ‘free flow’ model last November, meaning drivers can no longer pay at the tunnels’ traditional toll plazas using cash and must instead use either a pre-paid account or pay online afterwards.

The change has come into force in a bid to reduce journey times and cut pollution but has sparked a major backlash from users complaining it has been littered with errors that have resulted in people being incorrectly slapped with heavy fines and pursued by bailiffs.

Almost 11,000 people have put their name to a petition demanding a rethink, including slashing the cost of penalties for non-payment and increasing the length of time people have to pay their toll fee.

Read more: Drivers' nightmare as £1.90 tolls turn into £60 fines under new Tyne Tunnel system

The petition, started by Gary Spedding, calls for an “ethical system” that would “ensure penalty charges are not being used to harm ordinary working class individuals and families”.

Bosses of tunnels operator TT2 Limited appeared before councillors on Thursday after the huge public outcry.

Chief executive Phil Smith said he was “absolutely committed” to reducing the number of people being hit with fines after five per cent of users were penalised in November, totalling £507,000.

Meanwhile, a 20p increase in Tyne Tunnel tolls for HGVs from April up to £3.90 was also approved on Thursday.  

Read more: Tyne Tunnel suffers huge backlash over 'absurd' system after thousands get £60 fine

Asked at a meeting of the North East Joint Transport Committee’s Tyne and Wear sub-committee why TT2’s fines are set at their current level, between £30 and £100 depending on how quickly they are paid, Mr Smith claimed that any lower rates would not cover the cost of TT2 pursuing drivers to recover the money.

Mr Smith said that such a reduction would mean that tunnel tolls would then have to be set higher to make up the difference, which “does not seem intuitively fair” to people who do pay on time.

On the question of extending the time period given to pay the toll beyond the day after your journey, he added: “Similar UK river crossings operate at the same time frame and there is a reason for that. The reason is that it gives the minimum level of non-compliance and the maximum amount of people paying on time.

“I hear people say that it’s counter-intuitive and if you have longer to pay then more people will.

“But what actually happens is that you put it to one side and people forget to pay.”

Mr Smith told councillors that existing Clean Air Zones in the UK give people six days to pay a toll and have a non-compliance rate of up to 30 per cent and that 11 per cent of people do not pay parking fines on time.

He also admitted that there had been “couple of wrinkles” in the system that have resulted in people being fined incorrectly, but said officials were working to recompense affected drivers and “we are not in the business of wrongly charging people”.

Mr Smith also announced several changes to the payment system to “make it work better at a customer level”.

He said that customers will get more notification alerts when funds are running low on their payment account and an email when it runs out of money, while TT2’s auto top-up system will have its minimum top-up amount cut from £10 to £5.

Committee chair and North Tyneside deputy mayor Carl Johnson called for TT2 to bring in a new hardship support system to help people for whom a heavy fine would result in serious financial struggles, but said he was “absolutely in favour” of the new free flow system and its “massive” benefits.

Transport chiefs say that the ‘free flow’ project has already reduced average journey times by up to 30 seconds and cut emissions by 90 per cent.

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