What to do if a pothole damages your car

It’s pothole season and many of us will suffer damage to our cars because of unrepaired roads. Here’s what to do if it happens to you.

Potholes

The numbers around potholes are mindboggling.

Repairing the UK’s road network as it stands would, according to the Asphalt Industries Alliance, cost just shy of £10bn – and the work would take 10 years to complete. And that would only bring the roads up to a level where they could be cost-effectively maintained in the future.

In recent years the government has pledged £6bn in financial support to local councils to help tackle the problem – but critics say there is little evidence that the situation is improving. And many motorists (this one included) would probably tell you it’s getting a whole lot worse.

What causes a pothole?

Winter is pothole season. One of the main causes of a pothole is water getting into spaces beneath the road surface and then expanding as it freezes, distorting the road materials and leading to collapse once it thaws. Traffic passing over the site then dislodges the debris and bingo, a hole is born.

The main problems your car is likely to suffer (assuming you avoid a catastrophic loss of control) are damage to your wheels and tyres, which could affect your suspension and your steering alignment, leading to your vehicle pulling to one side.

Uncorrected, this could lead to uneven wear on your tyres and also trigger more significant steering problems.

Repairs for pothole damage usually come in the £300 - £500 range. At that level, you’d probably not want to claim on your car insurance as you’d have to pay the policy excess (typically £250, sometimes more) and you’d lose any no claims discount you’d built up on the policy. You’d probably also find that your renewal quote would be higher after you’d made a claim.

Where has the most potholes?

The country’s road network is plagued by millions of potholes – at least 2.39m, to be precise. Our survey of local councils shows that Nottinghamshire has the highest number of potholes in the UK, with over 253,920 reported between January 2017 and June 2019.

Devon, Kirklees and Cambridgeshire are comfortably in six-figure territory. Cardiff Council is down in 10th spot but still had 49,500 potholes reported or identified in the period.

In terms of spending on repairs, Hertfordshire County Council dug deepest with a spend of just over £14m in those 18 months. Tot up the expenditure of the 10 councils who funded the most repairs and you are well north of £60m – that’s money pointedly not being spent on other council services.

Figures such as these are painful to read, but the jolt you receive when you hit a particularly savage pothole can cause real damage to your car and thus to your finances.

And if you’re a cyclist, potholes can represent a genuine threat to your safety, either as a result of falling off because of the hole itself, or by being hit by a car because you swerved to avoid the danger.

How to make a claim

If you need to pay for repairs to your car following an encounter with a pothole, you can lodge a claim for reimbursement with the local council or, if you’re on a motorway or major trunk road, the relevant authority (Highways England, Traffic Scotland, Traffic Wales or the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland).

There are a few steps to follow:

  • Gather evidence at the scene, provided it’s safe to do so – take a photo (with an object such as a glove or sweet wrapper for scale), note the road/street name and the number of the nearest building, and record the time and date
  • If possible, take measurements – you’ve a greater chance of success if the pothole is deeper than 4cm and wider than 15cm
  • If you can’t stop safely or legally, look for a landmark or sign to help you pinpoint where the incident occurred on a map
  • Take photos to show any visible damage to your car
  • Report the pothole – there are several ways to do this, including at www.gov.uk/report-pothole, which also has a postcode finder so you can specify the location. You’ll also be given a link to the local council’s website
  • The local council or road authority may send you a claims form to complete
  • Get the repairs done straight away – don’t wait to see if your claim is successful as your car might not be safe and could be damaged further if a problem isn’t rectified
  • Make sure you keep receipts for all the work
  • Don’t lose heart if your claim is rejected – this is almost to be expected. At this point you’ll need to decide whether you wish to take your claim to the next level

What you can do if your claim is rejected

An authority can reject your claim if it can show that it was justifiably unaware of the pothole. But you can fight this by suggesting that the maintenance regime for the road in question was inadequate in terms of regular inspections and appropriate repairs.

That means digging into the authority’s policy on highways maintenance (perhaps via a Freedom of Information request) and checking the records to see whether work has been done in accordance with its own rules. If you can spot any evidence that your pothole is the result of inadequate repairs, you can proceed with confidence.

Claiming can be a laborious exercise, and you may decide life is too short to battle against the authority over a period of months. But you might find similar cases in the local area, perhaps on local news websites or via social media. The experiences of other drivers might help you decide how to proceed.

All data based on responses to a Freedom of Information Request, covering the period January 2017 to June 2019.

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