Signs to help drivers compare the cost of motorway fuel have been in the pipeline for two years. But ministers still can’t say when the scheme will be up and running.
Drivers continue to face sky-high motorway fuel prices because the government is dragging its heels on plans to increase competition between service stations.
At the start of 2013, an investigation carried out by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) into UK fuel prices found that customers were typically charged 7.5p a litre more for petrol and 8.3p more for diesel on motorways.
The long road to fairer fuel prices
- March 2016: motorway signs displaying fuel prices are trialled on the M5 between Bristol and Exeter
- August 2015: Department for Transport says it is still "looking into" a trial of motorway signs.
- December 2014: In Autumn Statement, government reveals plans to start trial of signs on M5 between Bristol and Exeter in "early 2015".
- June 2014: Department for Transport starts study into cost and planning implications of signs.
- October 2013: Justice Secretary Chris Grayling says trial of signs will start in 2014.
- May 2013: David Cameron tells civil servants to draw up plans to introduce signs on UK motorways.
- January 2013: Office of Fair Trading calls for greater transparency on motorway fuel costs and recommends signs be installed to help drivers compare prices.
The watchdog recommended that Britain follow France’s lead and install a network of signs which compared fuel prices at all the service stations on upcoming sections of motorway.
This would enable drivers to use the best-value retailer, with an increase in competition helping to force down prices.
At present, it is thought that service stations can get away with charging higher prices for fuel, as well as for other amenities, because they typically have a "captive market", with drivers unable to shop around for cheaper deals.
The OFT’s suggestion was initially welcomed by ministers, with David Cameron announcing in May 2013 that he had ordered the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Highways Agency to begin work on developing a network of signs.
Meanwhile, drivers continue to pay over the odds for petrol and diesel at the country’s service stations.
Figures published by the AA at the end of July showed that while the average price for both petrol and diesel was 116.6p a litre, costs on the motorway were more than 10p a litre higher.
Service-station diesel cost as much as 127.9p a litre while petrol cost 125.9p a litre at the time the research was carried out.
The AA said that this meant filling up a large family car with 60 litres every week would cost around £25 more a month at a motorway service station.
In the Autumn Statement last December, the coalition government issued a press notice stating: "The Department for Transport will begin work early next year on trialling a new fuel comparison sign at five service stations on the M5 between Bristol and Exeter, with a view to introducing the signs by the end of 2015."
A big misunderstanding
The spokeswoman explained that the media and motoring organisations had misinterpreted the December 2014 press notice.
She added: "The aim of the trial will be to determine whether traffic signs are effective in providing information to road users, and successful in bringing down prices.
"A decision on whether to proceed with rolling this out nationally will be made after the trial has finished."
RAC fuel spokesman Simon Williams said, however, that it was clear from the press notice that the government intended there to be a UK-wide network of signs set up by the end of 2015.
He added: "It’s very disappointing that the government trial of displaying motorway fuel prices in advance of services has not been progressed despite it being announced in December 2014, nearly two years after the Office of Fair Trading first asked the Department for Transport for such a measure.
'Changing its tune'
"And it is a real shame that the government now appears to have changed its tune and is going back on what it clearly stated about a national roll-out in last year’s Autumn Statement.
"Ministers need to bear in mind that it is very important to manage motorists’ expectations properly."
Williams said that the RAC had spoken to the DfT earlier in the summer about the trial, with officials at the time blaming the change of government following May’s General Election for the delay in setting up the M5 trial.
He added: "Motorists needing to buy fuel on the motorway continue to be forced to pay over the odds for no apparent good reason.
"What we really need now is to see how these signs work in practice and whether drivers find them a benefit."