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The pothole problem in England

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What to do if your car is damaged by a pothole

Personal Injury analysis: Pauline Smith, senior associate executive and Abigail Roberts, paralegal, both at Stephensons Solicitors LLP, discuss England’s ‘pothole problem’, highlighting where the problems stem from, personal injury issues and what the impact of a five-year fund to undertake pothole repairs will be.

What is the background to England’s ‘pothole problem’ and how have problems been exacerbated?

Potholes are collapsed areas in tarmac resulting from pressure of traffic and bad weather. The peak periods for potholes were identified as January and February, this is evidence that the colder months prove challenging for England’s roads. Wet weather, in combination with repeated freezing and thawing, noticeably increases the development and deterioration of potholes and also causes repairs to fail prematurely. An increase in extreme weather conditions, such as the ‘Beast from the East’ and prolonged summer heatwaves, has been followed by an increase in poor road conditions. The roads are unable to cope with the extreme weather conditions.

The Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA), whose members are responsible for supplying most materials used for fixing the holes, advises that the pothole problem is exacerbated by the lack of resources that are funnelled into the general maintenance of roads. Councils in England and Wales are fixing fewer potholes. However, Nicholas Thom, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham, has said that these findings do not mean that road conditions are improving.

What problems stem from potholes? In particular, what are some of the personal injury/insurance issues?

Vehicle owners and cyclists are the categories of people most affected by potholes. Vehicles most commonly obtain damaged shock absorbers, broken suspension springs and distorted wheels as a result of potholes. Collisions may also be caused if a vehicle is thrown off course after hitting a pothole. Upon making a freedom of information request to Highways England, the RAC found that there were 528 successful claims relating to pothole related vehicle damage in 2017/18 which is more than double the number recorded in 2016/17. Despite a decrease in reported potholes and pothole-related accident, the success rates of claims has significantly risen which is a positive improvement for claimants.

Cyclists may hit potholes and subsequently be thrown from their bicycle to the ground or into the path of an oncoming vehicle. These accidents often cause serious injuries for the cyclist and can be fatal. The Department for Transport found that there were 64 reported deaths and accidents involving cyclists and caused by poor or defective road surfaces in 2016. This is almost quadruple the number recorded in 2007.

What will be the impact of the five-year fund to tackle potholes?

In recent weeks, the Transport Select Committee has called for a five-year fund to undertake pothole repairs (see further: Transport Committee outlines recommendations for repairing English roads, LNB News 01/07/2019 48). The Filling the Gap report stated that a lack of targeted funding was the key issue surrounding poor road conditions. A lack of general funding provided to local authorities has meant that these authorities have had to divert money from other vital areas in order to fix roads. Having a targeted fund for the repair of potholes will mean that local authorities are able to prioritise improving road conditions alongside other important and indispensable community issues.

What recent action has been taken to mitigate the problem? What has been the impact of this action been and has it gone far enough?

The October 2018 budget announcement saw Chancellor Philip Hammond promise an extra £420m for councils in England to deal with ‘potholes, repair damaged roads, and invest in keeping bridges open and safe’. Multiple parties have expressed concerns that this is simply not enough funding. The AIA has claimed that £9.7bn is needed over the next ten years for England’s roads to be restored to an acceptable condition. The Transport Committee report also acknowledges the lack of funding and suggests that current funds are not allocated efficiently with the current utilisation of quick-fixes often proving more expensive in the long run. The £420m government investment must be used as part of a more comprehensive, long-term road improvement strategy if it is to be  most effective. The government has also provided £23m as a contribution for research and trials on new surface materials or pothole repair techniques. This fund must be channelled into innovations and collaborations which aim to create new solutions to this perpetual pothole problem.

How are local authorities addressing the issue and what more can be done? Do local authorities have to repair potholes immediately?

A spokesman for the Department for Transport has highlighted government action which is providing local authorities with more than £6.5bn for road maintenance and pothole repairs. A study found that the number of potholes repaired by councils in England and Wales rose by more than one-fifth last year—a marked improvement. The government is also investing £900,000 in schemes which allow councils to manage and plan maintenance works more efficiently. A more continuous schedule of maintenance will hopefully lead to fewer serious potholes developing in the future.

The Local Government Association advises that fixing roads is a priority. The decision in the Court of Appeal case, Crawley v Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council [2017] EWCA Civ 36, [2017] All ER (D) 38 (Feb) acted as a reminder to local authorities that they must have a reasonable system in place for responding to reports made out of hours of defects which represent an immediate or imminent hazard. Leaving reports of serious defects until the next working day was found to be inadequate and out-of-hours systems such as standby repair teams or on-call highway inspectors should be put in place.

What next steps are needed to tackle potholes? Are there any developments to keep an eye out for?

Further government funding is needed over the coming years and this funding must be allocated efficiently in order to drastically minimise the pothole problem. It is hoped that sensors built in to vehicles will allow real-time logging of road conditions and will allow local authorities to make faster, more efficient repairs.

Focus on innovation is needed in order to find new materials which can be used to resurface roads which are not as susceptible to the development of potholes. Nottingham Transportation Engineering Centre are developing new types of road materials, such as ‘self-healing asphalt’. These developments could reduce the necessary frequency of road repairs and could eventually render potholes extinct.

Interviewed by Varsha Patel. First published on Lexis Nexis.