Today is National Pothole Day. To celebrate, let's remember the time we got up close and personal with some broken tarmac...
A few feet from the busy A31, the latest weapon in Hampshire County Council’s fight against potholes is hard at work.
A bright yellow truck, with a hydraulically operated boom extending from a large container on its back, over the cab and towards the road ahead, is slowly and noisily making its way along a lay-by, its driver searching for potholes.
When he finds one, he stops the vehicle and extends its ‘proboscis’ towards the hole, into which it blows compressed air, scattering any debris. Hot bitumen emulsion is then sprayed in and around the sides of the dry and pristine cavity. This seals the pothole and creates a bonding layer for the precisely targeted, high-velocity blast of aggregate and bitumen mix that follows.
Next, the proboscis releases a ‘pad coat’ of chippings onto the still-tacky bitumen, followed by a final spray of dry aggregate. GPS and cameras record the position and status of the pothole and the data is relayed to the council. Time taken from start to finish? Three minutes.
Amey, the contractor showing off the Archway Roadmaster 295 to the council highways team, says 17 such vehicles, each costing £175,000, are being used around the country. Paul Anderson, Amey’s account manager, says the repairs are good for at least three years.
“Around 90% of potholes are in the top ‘wearing course’,” he says. “This machine allows us to get to more potholes earlier in their life cycle, preventing more serious damage.”
Hampshire County Council’s Colin Taylor is impressed. “Our road network took a real battering four years ago and the number of potholes has increased,” he says. “The last thing we want is a temporary repair that we have to fix again. This is good preventative maintenance. It’s robust enough to stop water getting into the hole – which is what usually does the damage – and it provides a sealed surface and a new friction surface, all with just one operator. If the operator sees other potholes not previously reported, he can fix those, too.”
Whether it’s Perth and Kinross Council’s controversial announcement in 2016 that it was increasing its “pothole intervention levels for repairs” from a hole size of 40mm to 60mm (a spokesman said it would continue to repair dangerous holes without delay), or Calderdale Council boasting that it repaired 2000 holes in April alone, potholes are a hot topic.
They have been since 2012, when the UK had its second-wettest year on record. Roads were weakened from beneath by rising groundwater and from above by tyres forcing water into cracks, compressing the surface and breaking it open. On top of that, utility companies are continually digging up roads, and their repairs aren’t always to standard.
The resulting potholes (70% of councils define a pothole as being a 40mm-deep cavity in the road) can shred tyres and crack wheels. In a 2016 survey, 39% of the AA’s members claimed their cars had been damaged by potholes. Of this number, 28% said a wheel, its tyre and the car’s tracking had been damaged. The survey found that members in Scotland were the worst affected, followed by those in Yorkshire and Humberside.
The Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA), whose members provide road maintenance services to local authorities, said its annual survey of local councils had revealed that a combination of bad weather, rising traffic levels and what it described as “decades of underfunding” were taking their toll on the nation’s roads.
AIA chairman Ian MacKenzie said: “Local roads are deteriorating at a faster rate than they can be repaired, and more significant problems for the future are building unseen below the surface.” Local councils agreed. The Local Government Association (LGA) said addressing what it called the “roads crisis” was becoming increasingly urgent, but the average highway maintenance budget per local authority had fallen by 16%.
LGA transport spokesman Peter Box said: “Councils fixed a pothole every 15 seconds last year, but they remain trapped in a cycle that will only ever leave them able to patch up deteriorating roads.”
Following calls from local government for extra cash to repair potholes, a £250 million ‘pothole action fund’ was announced in last year’s Budget, and local councils will receive a total of £50m each year for the next five years to help pay for the repair of more than four million potholes.
The average amount allowed for each repair is £53. A Department for Transport spokesman couldn’t explain how the figure was broken down but said the average repair cost was based on an AIA survey of local councils.
Colin Taylor reckons the cost is closer to £60, but, he says, that doesn’t include compensation paid to motorists whose cars have been damaged. “Councils who are insured may pay minor claims to a certain level but will have to pay any excess out of their own funds,” he says. “But Hampshire self-insures. That means we’re responsible for the full payout. We look at every claim on merit, but if we’ve followed our policies and the national guidance, we will reject it.”
As the Archway Roadmaster 295 extends its proboscis into another pothole, Hampshire’s motorists will be hoping it fills and seals it for good, so it gives an extra squirt of bitumen, just to be on the safe side.