Last week, the RAC published figures which showed a three-fold rise in call-outs due to potholes in the first quarter of this year when compared to the same period last year – despite the reduced traffic on our roads due to Covid restrictions.
RAC patrols reported that 4,694 drivers had broken down due to pothole-induced damage including broken suspension springs, distorted wheels and damaged shock absorbers. Punctures, though some were surely due to road defects, were not counted. This also represents the biggest rise between quarters that the RAC has ever recorded.
It may therefore be somewhat surprising to learn that local authorities did spend more on road maintenance in 2020/21 than in the previous year. According to the Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey, published on 31 March 2021, the average spend per authority in England was £30.9m, up 15% compared to 2019/20.
However, we shouldn’t just be looking at how much councils are spending, but how they are spending it. Can the same budget be used to do more? The London Borough of Richmond has shown that it can, switching to a new pothole repair technology which is saving between 20 and 30%, all of which it is ploughing back in to making more repairs.
The longevity of repairs should also be properly measured and scrutinised. There are no figures to say what the average life of a traditional pothole repair is, but it is safe to say that every person reading this article has seen potholes reinstated only to begin unravelling in a matter of months or even weeks.
The reason that potholes keep failing is that the joint between the repair material and the existing road material is a weak point. Whatever bonding agent is applied to the joint, a fine crack will form sooner or later, through which water will penetrate. Potholes begin to form when water in those cracks freezes and expands, and in doing so enlarges the crack – known as freeze-thaw action.
The RAC blamed harsh winter weather on the dramatic rise in its pothole-related call outs. According to the Met Office, we had the coldest January since 2010. Some of those potholes will have come from new cracks in aged and brittle asphalt, but others will have come from failing pothole repairs or utility reinstatements.
The ALARM survey showed that the number of utility openings is rising everywhere, with 13,212 in England, 10,554 in London and 4,369 in Wales. Although utility companies are responsible for making good any below-par reinstatements within the first two years, local authorities must foot the bill after that. ALARM found that councils were spending an average of 5% of their maintenance budgets carrying out repairs due to utility openings.
The good news is that there is technology which banishes that weak cold joint, whether around pothole repairs or along utility trench reinstatements. The new technology Richmond council is deploying is Thermal Road Repairs’ patented system.
In publishing its findings, the RAC called for a change in how Central Government provides road maintenance funding to local authorities to allow them to plan more strategically, further ahead. Our plea to councils is that they should also be strategic in how they analyse their current processes and consider making changes. Maintaining the status quo is clearly not working.
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