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Britain's Pothole Woes: How Bad is the Situation?

Potholes are the subject of frequent media articles and typically attract sometimes quite heated conversations on social platforms like Facebook, so they’re very much part of the UK’s psyche – but how bad is the problem?

Commenting in the article published under the Telegraph’s headline “Potholes a 'national disgrace' and costing drivers and insurers £1m a month, AA warns”, the iconic motoring organisation revealed that it has received more pothole-related claims in just the first four months of 2018 than it did during the whole of 2017.

According to the AA’s insurance director, Janet Connor, many motorists don’t actually make claims for more obvious damage to wheels and tyres in order to protect their no-claims bonuses and avoid paying excesses, which highlights just how seriously cars must be getting damaged for claims to surge by 171%. Pothole claims average £1,000, putting the total bill at around £1 million per month.

As a result of what she calls a ‘national disgrace and embarrassment’, Ms Connor detailed how pothole claims made in 2018 are regularly classified as ‘car severely damaged and un-driveable’; which she says was rarely the case in 2017.

Why has Britain’s pothole problem worsened?

Motoring bodies from local councils to the RAC point to the long, harsh winter the UK experienced as one of the primary contributors to the spiralling pothole crisis, cold temperatures from October right through to March or later resulting in a significant deterioration of road surfaces. The typical process of a pothole forming is when water seeps into cracks in the road and then freezes, breaking open the surface. 

Despite Transport Secretary Chris Grayling announcing a £100 million pothole repair fund in March 2018, many councils say they simply can’t afford to repair all the potholes within their boundaries. Martin Tett from the Local Government Association revealed that, against a backdrop of significant budget reductions, councils will require £14 billion to fix the nation’s pitted roads. He cites the government’s unfair allocation discrepancy of around 40 times more funding to repair national roads than to address local roads as one of the reasons minor roads are in such a poor state.

Seeing notorious potholes temporarily patched up only to redevelop in a short space of time is a familiar occurrence across Britain as councils repair potholes every 15 seconds on average but become stuck in a continuous cycle as new holes emerge. Alan Mackenzie, Chairman of the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA), believes that prolonged under-investment in the UK’s ageing roads combined with increasing traffic volumes means that councils are facing a losing battle.

Online forum discussions often show that heavy goods vehicles regularly being diverted along A-roads and sometimes B-roads because of long-term roadworks such as the M6 smart motorway upgrade have left many town and village residents angry at how such traffic patterns have worsened the already poor state of their local roads.

Possible solutions to Britain’s pothole woes

With many voices calling the announced additional government funding inadequate for properly tackling potholes nationally, and local newspapers regularly inferring that councils aren’t showing enough determination, some residents have taken to unusual methods to highlight the problem, such as planting shrubs and plants in potholes or filling them with bags of compost, mud or similar. In the Welsh town of Caernarfon, one councillor has even taken the matter into his own hands and has fixed nearly 100 potholes himself using glue, asphalt and a blowtorch thanks to his previous work for the highways agency.

A growing number of enterprises providing high-speed pothole-patching solutions are springing up, citing their ability to permanently repair a pothole in just two minutes, which has helped them secure business with Northumberland County Council and other local authorities.

In Scotland, Fife Council has been trialling an innovative and environmentally beneficial scheme whereby potholes are repaired with a bitumen-substitute material called MR6. Essentially made from pellets produced from old plastic bags, it’s said to be 60% stronger and able to last ten times longer than regular asphalt, or ‘tarmac’ as it’s often called.

Vehicles equipped with cutting-edge scanning and imaging technology are being used in various parts of the UK to create precise data maps that will help local authorities proactively predict where potholes are likely to develop. Such a risk-based approach to ‘asset management’ of roads has been reaping positive results in Brent London Borough Council, for example, where pothole prevention and repair are now handled more efficiently.

A somewhat more drastic solution would be for local councils to approve the construction of bypasses to reduce the number of HGVs that frequently travel through various small towns and villages.

Although Britain’s pothole woes are unlikely to go away overnight, it’s clear that with the help of technology, better targeting of funds, a change in the use of roads and the devising of innovative solutions, the pothole problem can certainly be addressed more effectively.