A survey in March 2013 from the Asphalt Industry Alliance confirmed what most of the country's motorists already suspected – that the UK's road surfaces are going from bad to worse. The ALARM study showed that the country's highways are scarred by approximately two million potholes (compared to the already appalling figure of 1.7 million found by the previous year's study in March 2012).
Moreover, the review shows that the average area and depth of potholes is increasing as well as their numbers. Unfortunately, therefore, these hazards are not only more numerous than before; they are also more likely to cause sudden, debilitating damage to your vehicle, such as punctures and ruptured suspensions. Such an occurrence puts drivers and passengers in a great deal of immediate danger, as well as subjecting them to the inconvenience and additional expense of using roadside recovery services.
The causes of the UK's deteriorating road surfaces are fairly simple. The country's network of highways is one of the busiest in Europe, enduring the (literal and metaphorical) pressure of millions of motor vehicles of all sizes every day. A number of years with historically harsh winters and high rainfall has exacerbated small cracks and holes in the asphalt of roads. Simultaneously, reduced public infrastructure spending mean that local authorities face a backlog of repairs that continues to grow every year.
This unwelcome situation is unlikely to improve in the short-term – on the contrary, it is set to become worse still. What, then, can a driver do to avoid becoming one of the third of British drivers (according to a survey of 22,827 people by the AA) that have suffered pothole damage in the last two years? There is no infallible solution, but by remembering the three "Ps" below – Preparation, Perception, and Poise – you can reduce the risk of hefty repair costs as well as contributing to your safety and that of other road users.
"Fail to prepare, prepare to fail", as the saying goes. Regular car checks (manufacturers and advisory bodies usually recommend once a month at the very least) can solve a number of vehicle maintenance issues before they arise. The likelihood of severe and instantaneous damage from poor road surfaces can be drastically cut by keeping your tyres properly inflated, and the prompt repair of your car's wheel housing, exterior glass surfaces or suspension mechanism.
As the only part of your vehicle in constant contact with the road, tyres are the components that decline the quickest. Over time their internal air pressure will inevitably decrease. As well as adversely affecting fuel economy and CO2 emissions, this makes a puncture when going over potholes more likely. Underinflated tyres have a greater part of their surface area in contact with the road. The pressures placed on a tyre that is too soft can result in the surface of the rubber being slashed by the jagged edge of a crater, or pinched between the wheel and the sharp lip of the pothole.
Ensuring your tyres are inflated to the pressure recommended by the vehicle's manufacturer is therefore of even more importance if (like most British drivers) you regularly travel on poor road surfaces. It is, nevertheless, important to remember that pumping them up too much can be equally problematic. In addition to compromised traction and handling, over-inflation results in tyres vulnerable to overheating and uneven tread wear – which makes them more likely to rupture on any abrupt impact.
The type of jolt received by a car or van going over a large pothole is also enough to cause significant, and perhaps irreversible damage to a windscreen that already has a chip or crack of any significant depth. Very minor blemishes on windscreens or windows are unlikely to become a major concern, but it is best to err on the side of caution and ask the opinion of a trained professional.
On busy or unfamiliar roads with a bad road surface, it is impractical to try and avoid every last hole in the road. However, by keeping your vehicle properly maintained you can give yourself a good chance of avoiding (or at least mitigating) any damage done.
Early observation of hazards, and reacting sensibly to continually changing situations on the road ahead, is a central part of road safety and car sympathy. Noting the presence of a substandard road surface – and taking precautions by changing road position, speed and gear when appropriate – is a skill in itself, and one increasingly important to acquire for a safe, smooth journey.
Making a mental note of the roads in your area that are in poor shape (particularly those used by a lot of HGVs, such as the roads of an industrial estate) is a good idea. If you are travelling on unfamiliar roads, a rougher and louder ride than usual, as well as the evidence of your own eyes, can alert you to likely problems with the quality of the road surface.
Naturally, extending your field of vision as far into the distance as possible allows you to see scars in the road surface approaching, and (if possible) to manoeuvre out of their way without causing problems. Keeping a sensible distance from other traffic on busy roads, and paying attention to other cars slowing down or changing course, can also give you early warning of potholes – your view of which could be obscured by other vehicles.
On badly maintained roads a slightly slower pace, and in some cases selecting a lower gear, may also be advisable. In many cases, road accidents or vehicle damage is the result of hasty swerving or braking when a driver sees a pothole late (see the next section, "Poise", to understand the dangers of this). Giving yourself a couple of extra seconds to become aware of hazards related to substandard road surfaces allows you to take in more information and plan your drive accordingly.
The need for advanced perception and a sensible driving strategy is only increased when travelling on wet or icy roads. In these conditions, it is more difficult to reduce your speed quickly if you are caught out by potholes. Moreover, the puddles and standing water of a wet road can also conceal deep and jagged fissures.
Once you identify potentially dangerous potholes, an active yet measured approach is essential. Being able to keep your poise when confronted by a highway of rough or even genuinely dangerous quality, of course, arises from looking well ahead and being able to formulate a plan to deal with hazards in good time.
How you deal with a cracked and pockmarked road is largely dependent on the road type, weather, and traffic conditions. Avoiding a particularly intimidating pothole by temporarily moving over to the other side of the road, for example, may be a reasonable course of action when travelling at under 20mph in a quiet residential street. Swerving away from a pothole into the next lane of a motorway, however, would be extremely dangerous. As well as the greater potential for losing control (endangering yourself and other road users), hitting the edge of the hole at an oblique angle can have a far greater effect on your tyre, wheel rim and steering alignment than going straight over it.
Bringing your speed down will reduce the effect of poor road surfaces. Harsh braking before coming to a pothole, however, is the worst thing a driver can do. As well as being dangerous for the vehicles behind, pressing the brake pedal severely (and continuing to press it as you go over the hole) has the effect of compressing the front-end suspension system of your car or van. You are therefore more susceptible to the impact of potholes, despite travelling at a lower speed.
If positioning your wheels away from a rut is not practical, then early engine braking should reduce its effect as much as possible (selecting a lower gear on bad roads can increase the rate of engine braking) while maintaining the flexibility of your vehicle's chassis. Head straight over the pothole, while retaining a firm grip on the steering wheel in the "ten to two" or "quarter to three" position – this will prevent any dangerous loss of control.
On today's roads, it is almost impossible to steer clear of potholes all the time. Maintaining your poise and avoiding hasty decisions, however, drastically reduces the likelihood of your vehicle coming to grief due to bad road surfaces.