The pothole problem

What is a pothole? That’s not as silly a question as it sounds. Whether it’s an official pothole may not sound important, but it affects whether the council will accept responsibility for any damage claims you make.

By Remy Maisel

By definition, a pothole needs to be at least 40mm deep – or 2 20p coins standing up. If a hole is shallower than that, it’s just considered a ‘carriageway defect’.

Whether it’s an official pothole may not sound important, but it affects whether the council will accept responsibility for any damage claims you make 1.

Why are potholes a problem?

Potholes form when water seeps into cracks in the road surface, expanding and widening the cracks into holes. They’re a big problem for drivers, causing problems like damaged shock absorbers, broken suspension springs, distorted wheels 2 – and an increased risk of accident.

If you feel like the UK’s roads are more pothole than not, you’re not alone – it would take 14 years to fix the backlog of pothole repairs as of 2017 according to the Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance Survey 3. And the problem has been getting worse: the number of drivers breaking down after hitting potholes reached a three-year high between April and June of 2018 4.

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How can I avoid pothole damage?

The best way to avoid pothole damage is to steer clear of potholes altogether, but that’s not always practical. Even if you can’t dodge them, you may be able to prevent serious damage to your car with these tips. 

1. Slow down – reduce your speed and put more space between you and the car in front so you can see potholes coming. Beware of puddles, which can be potholes in disguise!

2. Stay inflated – check your car’s manual for the recommended tyre pressure and make sure you keep them inflated. This will minimise damage from hitting potholes 5.

3. Hold tight – hold your steering wheel tight. You may feel a strong jolt when you hit a pothole and end up losing control of the vehicle.

4. Don’t brake – slow down before the pothole, but braking as you actually hit the pothole can cause more damage 6.

Always pay close attention to how your car is driving after you’ve hit a pothole, and if something feels wrong, get the car checked out and gather evidence.

Can I claim against the government for pothole damage?

“It’s possible to claim costs against the highways authorities,” says Martin Smith, our Motor Claims Manager. 

The government is responsible for keeping the roads safe to use – so you may be able to claim for the cost of any damage caused by hitting a pothole on a public road, but you’ll have to prove it was the pothole that did it. Your mechanic can help identify the extent of the damage, but it’s a good idea to gather evidence of the pothole at the scene.

Councils are likely to challenge claims, so pursuing recoveries can be time consuming and costly

What evidence do I need?

If you’ve hit a pothole, you should always report the pothole to the local authority. This will help if you do make a claim and it makes it more likely that the pothole will be repaired quickly. Finally, get in touch with the local authority you reported the pothole to, and submit all your evidence and receipts to them. Councils may have their own guidelines, but here’s what you should consider submitting:

  1. Evidence of the pothole like photos. You could include something like a shoe for scale (but measuring is ideal) 
  2. Photos of the exact location
  3. Evidence of multiple quotes for any car damage
  4. Receipts for repairs 

If you use a dashcam, you’ll have a lot of the evidence you need. “There’s no doubt that if you have real-time footage of the road surface and you can show the pothole that you hit, that will be useful evidence,” says Martin. 

If your claim is rejected, you can consider going to small claims court or claiming on your insurance policy 7. “With governmental departments under financial pressure they are likely to challenge claims, so pursuing recoveries can be time consuming and costly,” Martin adds.

Even if you claim from the local authority, tell your insurer about any damage as soon as possible.

Should I claim for pothole damage on my insurance?

That depends. Claiming on your car insurance will be easier than claiming through the local authorities, but may be considered an ‘at-fault’ claim. This means you could lose your no-claims bonus and your premiums may go up. This depends on whether your insurer is able to recover the money from the responsible highway authority.

Either way, you’re covered. 

“If you have comprehensive insurance, hitting a pothole is defined as ‘accidental damage’, no different to, say, hitting debris in the road or bumping a post in a car park. If the vehicle suffers sudden identifiable accidental damage, then it’s covered, and we’ll meet the repair costs, subject to any excess and other terms of the policy,” says Martin. 

What isn’t covered is general wear and tear of driving on poorly maintained roads over time, which can be equally expensive, but is part of the cost of running a vehicle. 

According to Martin the costs for hitting a pothole may range from an amount less than the cost of a replacement wheel or realignment to several thousands of pounds for damage to suspension or steering systems.

You’ll have to choose one or the other – you can’t claim from your insurer and the local authority responsible for maintaining the road. But remember, your insurer may be able to recover the money from the council on your behalf.

Whichever way you decide to claim, remember to inform your insurer of any damage.