Never let it be said that the team at Times Money Mentor are not on top of the issues that concern the nation the most.

According to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the biggest single issue the public are concerned about is… potholes. He said it – we’ll tackle it!

Jokes aside, people really do have a problem with potholes on the roads in their neighbourhoods and those lying in wait on the open road. There are an estimated one million potholes on the UK’s roads. Why so many? Well, as the Times reported in August, annual expenditure on roads and maintenance halved from £4 billion in 2006 to £2 billion in 2019. That leaves a shortfall of an estimated £14 billion that would be required to repair our roads. And that’s why potholes are proliferating.

One of the biggest pothole gripes I hear is about the wildly differing stances taken by different councils around the UK. Some are rather militant when it comes to claims for damage to vehicle – and others almost never pay out.

I vanished down a bit of a hole myself researching this article. To say that there’s a ton of information, misinformation and outright ranting out there about potholes is an understatement. But here’s my guide to the holes in our roads, damage to your car and your rights.

What is a pothole?

I know that this might seem like an existential question, but it’s important to know how a pothole is defined if you’re going to make a claim about one.

Predictably, there is no one standard definition of a pothole. Research by the RAC Foundation found that the criteria used by Local Highway Authorities (LHAs) for the minimum depth of a pothole varies considerably – from 20mm to 50mm. They are also graded by length and width and by the level of risk they pose. In most (but not all) cases, the LHA will be the council in the area where the pothole that damaged your vehicle is lurking.

This means that you are the mercy of how that particular council defines a pothole if you want to make a claim. You’ll need to search on the council website to find this information, but having spent a rather frustrating few hours trying this out, I can tell you it’s much easier to type ‘pothole’ along with the name of the council or LHA in to a search drive.

I told you I vanished down a few holes while researching this article…

What kind of damage is caused by potholes?

The most common types of damage caused by the ever-present menace of potholes are:

  • Blowouts, punctures and other tyre damage.
  • Problems with the car’s steering systems.
  • Damage to the wheel and suspension.
  • Damage to the undercarriage of the vehicle.
  • Problems with the exhaust.

In more serious cases, it’s possible that you might lose control of the vehicle, which could result in a much wider scope of damage depending on what happens next.

Finally, there’s personal injury damage. I’m not covering that in this article, as personal injury claims usually go through solicitors. I’m not sure how I feel about some of the ‘ambulance chaser’ firms out there or how to differentiate between ‘good and bad’ businesses when they don’t spell out their fees upfront. However, coucals paid out more than £32 million in compensation for potholes and personal injury in just five years according to the Times.

What do you do if you think a pothole has damaged your car?

Safety first, so pull over where you can in a place where you can safely assess the damage.

Some signs of damage will be obvious or at least visible to the eye. Others might be a bit more subtle. For example, you might find your vehicle is vibrating after hitting the pothole, or the steering wheel isn’t returning to the correct centre point. Some people might find the car drifts to one side too.

Make a note of the damage that you’ve identified at the time and subsequently. Jot down (or record) a few notes while the incident is still at the forefront of your mind. Then turn to the pothole.

I know I’m stating the obvious, but don’t wander in to a busy road to photo the pothole unless it’s safe to do so and you have clear lines of sight in both directions of the road. If it’s not safe, come back later with a mate as a lookout – or sketch the scene. If you are able to take a picture, then it can help to have an identifiable item to put next to the pothole for size perspective. Finally, note down exactly where the pothole is on the road, what it’s opposite, the name of the road, roughly how far down the road it is and anything else that might prove useful.

You’ll have to go ahead and get the vehicle repaired before claiming, of course. So make sure you get a few quotes so you can prove you didn’t just go for the most expensive option, if the council disputes the costs.

How do I report the pothole?

Get ready to do battle!

While by no means a definitive response, most councils will argue that they are not liable for potholes unless they have been reported previously. You’ll see this referred to often in relation to the Highways Act 1980 – section 58 specifically. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and self-appointed legal experts online about this. Just assume that the council will argue it, and counter it with your own evidence.

And there will be evidence. There is a wealth of information out there in internet land too from pothole crusaders, many of whom will have identified your offending pothole, reported it and highlighted other incidents. Well in most cases.

Regardless, report the pothole to the local authority, city or council that is responsible for the road in question:

How do I complain about a pothole?

Once you’ve established which LHA/council is responsible for the pothole that sabotaged you, you’ll need to write to them to make a formal claim.

The more information you can provide the better, including:

  • A full breakdown of what happened, including dates, times and other factors that may be relevant (was the road busy, weather conditions, etc.)
  • The location of the pothole and details about it (size, depth, where it is on the road).
  • The extent of the damage.
  • The full cost of repairs (with proof).
  • Evidence that the pothole has been around for a while/been reported already.
  • The physical/mental impact on you personally.

You may pre-emptively request to see the council’s road repair reports and other documents they hold about the road in question and repairs.

Send copies of the documents, not originals. You may want to photo them too, just in case you’re able to submit an online claim.

What if they turn down my claim?

The council appointed claims handler will contact you and will usually give you their decision in writing. If your claim has been rejected, then you can appeal, but you’ll have to counter their findings. Most people do this by putting in Freedom of Information (FoI) requests on things like road maintenance and repairs or information about other complaints made or reports about the pothole in question.

Once you’ve got the information you need, make a formal appeal to the council/LHA setting out your objections to the conclusions drawn in the original decision. But if they don’t agree with you, then ultimately, you’ll need to take them to the Small Claims Court.

This might seem a little intimidating, but it’s actually quite easy to do. The process is different for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but you can start the process online and it’s not that expensive (depending on how much you’re claiming). Get started here. Many readers have told me about their successful small claims cases, so if you’re furious enough to take it further, it could just work out for you.

Will my insurance cover pothole damage?

Of course, there’s always your vehicle insurance policy. Yes, most policies will pay out for damage as a result of the pothole, as long as the insurer feels that you have not broken any of the rules of the road and that the damage was caused by the hole in question. However, as with any insurance claim, you face higher premiums if you do make a formal claim – or even if you phone up to ask them what to do. This is known as reporting a ‘claimable incident’.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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