Potholes: Bumps in the road costing UK motorists '£730m every year'

Many face paying over the odds for vehicle repairs, with no set plan among Scotland's councils.

Driving danger: Water in the paving creates cracks in the road, leading to potholes. <strong>Michael Gill</strong>
Driving danger: Water in the paving creates cracks in the road, leading to potholes. Michael Gill

We have all been there and experienced it: Driving along and then comes the sharp bump in the road and the dreaded exit from the car to look at the damage.

Potholes have always been the scourge of drivers, no matter how big or small they appear to be on the roads.

It used to be a winter problem, with many resurfacing at the beginning of the new year before the return to smooth roads for the summer months.

However, with the onset of more unpredictable weather, the pothole problem continues to increase for drivers, with councils forced to alter their plans in dramatically different fashions.

One local authority has spent more than £100,000 setting up a new task force to improve city centre routes.

Another has redefined what a pothole actually is in a bid to save around the same amount of money from its budget.

Council coffers are not usually of prime concern when a driver experiences a pesky pothole but rather the pinch in their own pockets. One insurance firm estimates repair for pothole damage costs UK drivers an average of £350 each.

While some are lucky to get away with minimal damage, others like Melanie Ward face having to pay over the odds after hitting a pothole in Irvine last December.

The 29-year-old said: “I was driving over the braes about 9pm on a Saturday night and it was pitch black. I was just following my friend and I saw her car swerving to the side of the road, I had no idea what happened.

“Before I knew it I had hit the pothole and it must have been a foot deep. The car started to make a lot of noise and I pulled over. Later I took the car to the garage for its MOT and the guys there asked what I had done to it.

“Underneath the car had to be completely realigned and the front left wheel where I hit the pothole had to be replaced because all of the parts had broken inside the actual wheel area. I had to pay an extra £500 on top of the actual MOT cost.”

A survey in January found a rise of 25% in the number of vehicles damaged by roads with potholes in them.

The biggest headache for drivers was damaged suspension springs, with 42% more incidents reported last year compared with 2014.

David Gerrans is the managing director of Warranty Direct, which runs the Potholes.co.uk website that claims the problem may cause “as many as one in ten mechanical failures on UK roads, and costing motorists an estimated £730m every year”.

He said: “Essentially, what causes a pothole is the presence of water in the underlying soil structure combined with traffic then passing over the affected area.

“The introduction of water to the underlying soil structure first weakens the supporting soil, and then traffic fatigues and breaks the poorly supported asphalt surface in the affected areas.”

In March, the very definition of how big a pothole was before it was recognised as a pothole was brought into question by Perth and Kinross Council.

It was revealed a pothole must be 60mm (2.4in) deep, 50% more than previously, before the council considers filling them.

In response to the move by Perth and Kinross Council, Mr Gerrans said: “There seems to be a something of a pothole postcode lottery that exists from council to council, as whilst there are guidelines on what councils should do to mend potholes, there are no hard and fast rules as such.

“The UK motorist pours billions of pounds into the public purse through taxes, yet experts reckon there is an amazing £1bn shortfall in funding for repairs.

“As a result, there is still a ‘patch and mend’ mentality when it comes to highway maintenance.

“Opting to let potholes on public roads worsen to an even greater extent before you will agree to fix them seems a very ill-advised strategy.

“Not only will that make roads more dangerous for the motorist, but pothole related damage will soar if road repairs are put off for longer, invariably leading to councils receiving greater numbers of compensation claims.”

While Perth and Kinross Council is looking to save £120,000, over at Edinburgh City Council the same amount of money is being spent on improving main routes in the city centre.

A further £60,000 will be spent on works south of the capital.

Speaking at the announcement of the initiative, days before Perth and Kinross Council changed its definitions, the capital’s transport convener Lesley Hinds said: “We recognise there has been an increase in the number of potholes across the city over winter and now we’re addressing the issue.

“In addition to our ongoing roads repair programme, we are focusing our resources on a dedicated team of staff to manage our road repairs.”

Aberdeen City Council goes by a similar measurement system, though not as deep as the one set by Perth and Kinross Council.

A response to the FAQ, “I have reported a serious pothole and it has not been filled, why not?” on its website is responded with: “A pothole is defined as a sharp edged hole anywhere in the road surface where part or all of the surface layers have been removed.

“In order for us to consider it a defect and therefore fill it, it generally needs to be more than 50mm deep.

“However, some potholes in the city centre or on crucial access roads that are deeper than 35mm will be filled.

“How quickly they are filled depends on the severity and location. If the pothole is in a footway, it needs to be more than 20mm deep before it will be treated as urgent.”

Glasgow: City council has a mobile app to report potholes (file pic). STV

There is a slightly different approach over at Glasgow City Council, which offers a mobile phone app to report potholes (among other council services).

After raising the Perth and Kinross Council plan to the local authority, a spokeswoman told STV News: “We don’t make determinations on pothole repairs based on depth alone.

“Any response to a reported pothole will be based on actual risk. The risk from a pothole, and the resultant response, depends upon not merely on its depth but also other factors including surface area, shape, location and traffic flow.”

Ultimately it does come down to the “postcode lottery” described by Mr Gerrans. However, he also recognises the fact there are no “hard and fast rules”, which do not make it the fault of the local authorities.

He adds: “Many people blame local authorities for the state of the UK’s roads. We’ve always thought that’s not entirely fair.

“Local councils do what they can to maintain the roads with the meagre road maintenance budgets they are given but it simply has never been an adequate level of funding.

“That’s not the local councils’ fault. It is more down to central government to provide a more realistic maintenance budget to pay for better repairs that will last longer and start chipping away at the horrendous backlog that has built up over many years of inadequate maintenance.”

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