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Letter From The UK: The British Pothole Crisis

Letter from the UK

As drivers we are admonished by our leaders to do better and be mindful of all the road safety rules and regulations. Commit a minor misdemeanour, however innocently or accidentally, and a camera has your number or a policeman pulls you over and your billfold is suddenly, painfully, lighter. That’s how it works here on the British Isles and I daresay it is the same in the USA.

Big Promises

Successive UK governments (motto: If you can’t fight, wear a big hat) have made road safety a top priority. This is as it should be but, like a boasting bully, they scarcely ever follow through when it comes to supporting the automotive infrastructure. In short, we are supposed to drive better but we have to do it on increasingly inferior roads.

In the UK, road maintenance is carried out by two different agencies. Local or regional town and country councils must maintain the minor roads and The Highways Agency must maintain the arterial routes, motorways, and expressways.

Friends, it just ain’t happening.

A Bit Of History

When cars were invented, it didn’t take long for governments to realise there was money in it for them. As vehicles improved the requirement of better roads became greater and it is the driver who paid. Our motoring taxes work like this: A substantial amount of the cost of a gallon of fuel is made up of not one, but two, taxes. When we buy a new car, part of the cost is tax. When we insure it there is tax to pay, and every year thereafter we have to pay another tax known as Vehicle Excise Duty (VED).

The name changes from time to time but, historically, VED has always been known as “Road Tax.” The motorist who pays expects that money to be used to maintain the roads. These days, the government don’t see it that way and trouser the cash to spend on diversity training or lavish lunches in both our Houses of Parliament.

The result is that drivers pay more and get less. Sound familiar?

Pothole Crisis

The number one gripe among British drivers is the pothole. We have more holes in our roads than the moon has craters. Driving on the surface of the moon is a luxury we can only dream of. Thanks to literally decades of under-investment, some of our roads aren’t much better than Peruvian goat tracks. In fact, goats steer clear. The backlog of repairs runs into the many BILLIONS of our British Pounds and we have passed the point of no return.

Sure, the “authorities” will tell you that every year a couple of million potholes are repaired. This is largely true but it is money wasted because the repairs are often so inferior that as soon as there’s a frost or heavy rain, the repair material pops out again to form more dangerous gravel on the side of the road. Potholes are like those hardy weeds that grow in your yard; those things just keep on coming back.

The solution is clear to all except those who have their heads buried ostrich-like in the sand. Every year more and more cars appear on our roads. Wear and tear of surfaces is inevitable. This is why a full and comprehensive road programme is required. Instead of patching, remake. Instead of repairing, renew.

We, the motorists of Britain, are not holding our breath.

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Winter conditions can have an adverse impact on a nation’s roadways. For example, in the State of Michigan, a significant portion of the MDOT’s annual maintenance budget is dedicated to pothole repair – over 8 million alone in fiscal year 2017. According to MDOT, potholes are caused when moisture seeps into the pavement, then freezes, expands and thaws, creating a gap in the pavement. Photo: Mircea Ploscar.

Road Casualties

This writer has no figures as to how many accidents are caused by potholes; that it happens though is certainly true. Potholes that are severe can at best blowout tires and at worst damage suspension. That’s an accident waiting to happen right there. The aftermath of road crashes costs the UK economy in excess of £15.6 billion every year. Where do you think that money could be better spent?

It doesn’t stop there. Our current driving test is, to be fair, pretty comprehensive, but more could be done. That we could help reduce new driver risk in the first six months of solo driving is a priority, and one of the aspects that pertains is pothole awareness. A new driver will not know what to expect when a wheel drops into a chasm until it’s too late.

And Finally

When a car is damaged by a pothole we may choose to claim it on our auto insurance. Insurers don’t like customers claiming; they take it personally. Thus some motorists accept the financial hit and pay up themselves, then try and claim back the money from the organisation responsible for the road maintenance.

It is possible; you can make a claim and win, but it’s a Stygian hell of malevolence that awaits. There is nothing more labyrinthine and sloth-like than a local government department. Yet, how else can a taxpayer penalise the people he pays to do a job if not through litigation? Otherwise it’s all just highway robbery.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite

Cover Photo: Jacob Ode.