In Depth

Why are UK potholes so bad? And can you get compensation?

Poor road surfaces costing drivers and insurance companies around £1m per month

The number of cars breaking down as a result of pothole-related damage almost doubled this winter, data from the RAC suggests.

The motoring group says 1.2% of RAC call-outs - a total of 2,841 incidents - in the last quarter of 2017 were down to cars hitting potholes, rising to 2.3% (5,540 incidents) in the first three months of this year.

Why are potholes so bad in the UK?

The recent cold weather has been blamed for the state of the roads. Potholes are usually caused by water seeping into cracks in the road surface and then freezing. The ice expands, breaking open the tarmac.

Despite councils filling in almost two million potholes a year, it seems they just can’t keep up. The Local Government Association has suggested that it would take 14 years to clear the backlog.

Some of the holes are large enough to bathe in. An article in Scottish newspaper The Herald in February featured an image of motorist Kevin Watson, 32, sitting in a giant pothole that he had hit while driving on a road in the Scottish Highlands, damaging one of his tyres.

How do potholes affect drivers?

As well as potentially giving drivers a nasty jolt, potholes can cause a significant amount of damage to cars. 

A recent study by the AA found that potholes in Britain’s roads are costing drivers and insurance companies a total of £1m a month in repairs. And the problem is getting worse: since the start of this year, there have already been 4,200 claims for damage caused by potholes, compared with 3,500 for the whole of 2017. 

The AA’s insurance chief, Janet Connor, said: “This year we’re seeing a growing number of pothole claims described as ‘car severely damaged and undriveable,’ which didn't happen at all last year.”

Among the more severe cases were a driver who was unable to drive out of deep pothole crate, The Independent says. The steering system on another car reportedly broke after hitting a pothole. 

With an estimated average repair bill of £1,000, the total cost this year so far comes to £4.2 million, reports The Daily Telegraph.

Is anything being done?

The Government recently announced a £100m boost to its Pothole Action Fund, says Auto Express – but that may not be enough. The magazine reports that the Asphalt Industry Alliance has warned of an annual £556m funding shortfall for road repairs in the UK.

Can you get compensation for pothole damage?

In a word, yes. You have to prove that the damage was caused by the pothole and not a pre-existing problem but, according to Money Saving Expert, “your mechanic should be able to put this in writing for you”.

Who is responsible?

Even if you’re not claiming compensation, it’s still a good idea to report the problem; and in either case, you need to work out who is responsible for that particular road. This varies for different types of roads, and for different parts of the UK. Money Saving Expert has a table that lays it out: sometimes it is a local authority, sometimes a private contractor.

What else should I do?

According to the AA, if you want to claim for damage, there are several important steps to take. These include taking photographs of the pothole (if it safe to do so), drawing sketches, and taking contact details from witnesses. It is a good idea to get several quotes before having repairs done, says the motoring organisation, and you should keep all invoices, receipts and other documents.

Do most councils pay out?

According to the Daily Express, increasingly not. The paper reported last month that councils are now using a “legal loophole” to get out of paying, arguing that streets with potholes had been scheduled for repair “within reasonable time”.

Kent County Council has turned down 342 out of 995 claims in the past two years on these grounds. Authorities may also argue that they were unaware of the pothole if it had not been reported, although you may still be able to show that the road was not maintained properly.

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