But the government wants perceptions to change. The Department for Transport is appointing a panel of experts – architects, motoring organisations and representatives of service station owners – to devise ways to make service stations more attractive. Among the measures being considered are improved structural design, increased green space and outdoor play areas, and more independent retailers and food outlets. Greater provision of charging points for electric cars will also be made.
This is not just a cosmetic exercise. As we all know – and as gantry signs on motorways regularly remind us – tiredness kills. So if service stations can be made more alluring, perhaps more of us will stop for a rest. The DoT suggests that almost 20% of accidents on major roads are sleep related. And incidents involving tired drivers are more likely to cause death or serious injury than any other road accidents. But maybe it’s not just the dispiriting experience of visiting a typical service station that’s deterring us from taking that much-needed break. While they must by law offer free parking of at least two hours, the cost of staying longer than the legal minimum can be prohibitive. The charges vary according to the service station operator and the location, but are typically about £12 for a car and £20 for a lorry or caravan. That’s quite a costly nap. We’re told the charges are clearly displayed, though I’ve never noticed a single sign in any of the many service stations I have visited up and down the country.
David Davies, MP for Monmouth and a former lorry driver, thinks the fees could encourage drivers to take risks and wants the government to change its policy and force stations to offer free parking for longer. Or, as he puts it: “It is bad enough that motorists pay over the odds to buy a coffee or snack at a service station without the worry of paying vast charges for taking forty winks. This is profiteering plain and simple. There is no justification whatsoever for making a charge.” Davies has the backing of the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM). Neil Greig, IAM director of policy and research, is similarly outspoken. He says: “Service areas are meant to be about safety and taking a break on a long boring journey. All too often these days they are more about selling things at inflated prices to a captive audience. “The two-hour parking rule leaves many drivers confused and worried that they may inadvertently go over the time limit if they stop for a break, which is not a good recipe for safer motoring.”
Service station operators monitor cars coming in and out with automatic plate recognition cameras positioned at entrances and exits. Motorists who stay longer than two hours and don’t pay the correct fee are usually sent a parking charge notice for as much as £100. If you think the charge is unfair, you can appeal. Details of the appeal procedure should accompany the notice, or you can look on the firm’s website. You might, for example, have broken down or been held up by bad weather. If the operator is a member of the Approved Operator Scheme run by the British Parking Association (BPA), you will also have access to the independent Parking on Private Land Appeals (Popla).
A parking charge notice issued by a private company does not have the same legal clout as a penalty charge notice or a fixed penalty notice issued by the local council or the police. Some motorists therefore ignore charge notices, but it’s risky because the company could take you to court to recover the money.