Drive pretty much anywhere in the UK for more than a few minutes and you're likely to encounter a pothole.
Some areas might be worse-hit than others but nowhere is free from the blight of bad road surfaces caused by traffic, the weather and authorities scrimping on maintenance.
Even if you are on your guard it can be hard to avoid driving through them and hitting one can be physically and financially painful. It’s estimated that damage caused by potholes costs motorists around £2.8 billion every year.
If potholes have left you with an expensive repair bill, you might be able to claim compensation.
“The authorities have a legal duty to maintain roads so they’re safe for everyone to use,” says Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com. “If they don’t and your car’s damaged, they should help pay the costs to repair it.
“It’s important to understand you can only claim if the authority responsible for the road has been negligent. So if a cannon ball drops off a truck, causing a pothole which two minutes later damages your car, you’ve no right to claim – there’s nothing the authorities could’ve done to prevent that.
“Even if you are eligible to claim, you have a decision to make. Some argue that compensation deprives authorities of much-needed cash to fix roads – others that the more people pursue their rights, the more incentive there is for authorities to improve the roads to avoid dealing with claims.”
What counts as a pothole?
Frustratingly, there is no standard definition of what constitutes a pothole. Instead, potholes are defined by their depth – otherwise they’re considered to be a ‘carriageway defect’.
The definition of a pothole varies between local authorities (Photo: Shutterstock)
The issue here is that different councils have different depths by which they define a pothole. Most councils use 40mm as the minimum depth.
Some councils also have a minimum width for potholes – it varies but they tend to use 300mm as the minimum width.
Who’s responsible for pothole damage to my car?
The local authority has a responsibility to maintain all the roads in its area but motorways and most A roads would be considered part of the national network and are the responsibility of:
England: Highways England
Wales: Traffic Wales
Scotland: Transport Scotland
Northern Ireland: Department for Infrastructure
In London, London red routes are the responsibility of Transport for London
Any damage that a pothole causes to your car could be their responsibility – which means you could be entitled to compensation.
That said, if your car is damaged due to other debris on the road, then you aren’t entitled to compensation. For this, you’d need to make a claim on your car insurance policy.
The chances of being successful in claiming compensation will significantly depend on whether the pothole has already been reported.
Councils have a statutory defence in that they cannot be held liable for a defect they are not aware of – either because it has not been reported to them or has not been picked up by their own system of inspection and maintenance.
If you have fully comprehensive insurance, it might also be possible to make a claim via your insurance company for the damage to your vehicle.
How do I claim for pothole damage?
If you’re going to claim from the local authority, it’s best to keep records of everything where possible.
Here’s what you do:
So long as it’s safe to do so, gather as much evidence about the pothole and the damage done to your car as you can.
Write down all the key details such as location of the pothole, its size, shape and depth.
It’s also worth taking a photograph of the offending pothole, and if it’s safe to do so, make a simple sketch of the area showing the position of the pothole and any surrounding features.
Potholes can cause serious damage to steering and suspension components (Photo: Shutterstock)
You should also note: the time and day of the incident, witness details (if any), your exact location so you can pinpoint the specific pothole, and the damage done to your car.
It goes without saying, perhaps, but if the damage happened on a motorway, never try to visit or take photos of the pothole. Not only is it extremely dangerous, but trespassing on a motorway is a criminal offence.
Report the pothole
Whether or not you end up claiming for the damage, it’s your duty as a good citizen to report the pothole. Not only does this help speed up repairs of the pothole, there’ll be a definite record of it for if you decide to claim.
Some councils use apps like FixMyStreet to monitor potholes. Others prefer you to report the pothole directly to them. Check with them beforehand.
Repair your car
Get several quotes for any repairs before you settle on a garage. If you’re not paying over the odds for the repair, you’re more likely to get that money back.
Keep records of any quotes and receipts you get for the repairs. This will help to support your claim.
Submit your claim
If you’ve decided to make a claim, get in touch with the same local authority that you reported the pothole to.
In your letter or email, you should include a full description of the incident, the location and time/date, details of any witnesses, any photographs or sketches of the scene, photographs of the damage to the car, and copies of all repair work receipts.
Be aware that making a successful claim is only likely if the local authority has failed in its duty to maintain the road.
What happens next?
One of three things will happen:
You win your claim and get all your money backYou are offered a partial settlementYour claim is rejected entirely
If the council offer a partial settlement, it’s always worth considering it. If it’s a lower amount than you’re demanding, it could cost you more in the long-run to continue the case.
According to consumer champion Which?, while you can claim the cost of any repairs, you won’t necessarily be compensated for additional travel expenses or the inconvenience caused.
If you feel your claim has been rejected unfairly, you can take the case to a small claims court – but make sure you have a strong case, as new fees introduced in recent years mean you’ll be forced to fork out twice as much if you lose.