This year's cold winter has delighted hillwalkers and climbers, but it has also brought to a head a problem that's been building for a while. Years of under-funded maintenance have left our roads crumbling, and some of the worst potholes will be encountered en route to the hills on Highland roads. Emily Donoho has spoken to some of the many hill-going drivers affected.
I was driving along the A82 in Spean Bridge, on my way to climb Beinn Fhada in Kintail. A crater that looked like the military had been doing missile tests on the road materialized in my headlight beams at the moment a car was passing on the other side. I had no place to go. I yelled a swear word. My Yeti crashed through the pothole with a bone-rattling thunk, and I said more things not fit for publication. At the next layby I stopped, kneeling on the asphalt in the rain to inspect the car and the wheel. No visible damage. I thanked Skoda and Nokian for the quality and ruggedness of their cars and tyres, then continued on my way to Kintail.
I was lucky. In the last year, many drivers on these roads haven't been so lucky, finding themselves stranded with flat tyres, cracked wheels, and broken suspension. According to the RAC, vehicle damage from deteriorated road surfaces throughout the UK has shot through the roof, with 40% increase damaged suspension springs, 165% rise in damaged shock absorbers and 600% increase in damaged/distorted wheels.
Most roads authorities have cut back on these essential maintenance activities as easy areas to reduce revenue spend… The overall spending is slowly reducing and it is reflected in a current concept of managed deterioration rather than maintenance of the valuable asset
One unlucky motorist was Conor Jardine, a student at Glasgow University. He was driving to Ben Oss and Beinn Dubhcraig in his Ford Fiesta with a group of friends from the Glasgow University Mountaineering Club, when his steering wheel started vibrating on the Loch Lomondside section of the road. "A few minutes later there was a really loud banging noise with the steering wheel going absolutely crazy," he recalled. "I don't actually remember hitting a pothole but the road was pretty shitty so it could've been any of them." Conor pulled into the caravan park at Inveruglas. Like many cars, the Fiesta had no spare, only the gunk that supposedly reinflates your tyre but rarely works when you've gashed it on a pothole. In any case, Conor had already used his gunk after hitting a pothole in Stepps the week before. Instead of enjoying what turned out to be a fantastic day in the mountains - blue skies and an inversion - he phoned every garage he could find. Eventually one in Killin responded. Three hours later, they recovered the car and he had to drive from Killin to his home in Airdrie. It cost him £200.
Sometimes, a spare wheel won't help, because most people only carry one. Thomas Beutenmuller had been on a climbing trip to the Cairngorms, staying in the Raeburn Hut. He was driving his Ford Fiesta on the A86, between Laggan and Newtonmore, when he says, "About two miles past Cluny Castle at a left bend in the road a big travel coach came from the other direction at considerable speed and cut the corner. This forced me to steer left and the two tyres on the passenger side now were on the uneven and stony surface next to the road. The coach did not hit us, but a hissing sound alerted me that I had a flat tyre. The coach driver was probably oblivious to what had happened and did not stop."
As it turned out, Thomas had two flat tyres. He didn't have a phone signal where he'd got stranded, so he changed one of the tyres, then rolled the car to the Creag Dubh carpark and had to climb a little hill opposite the cliffs. He remembers the recovery driver from Kincraig who picked him up an hour and a half later, saying, "This stretch of road is quite treacherous and that he picks up at least one car with a burst tyre every week." Buses and lorries regularly cut the corners, and with the edge of the road crumbling away, cars avoiding oncoming buses get damaged. It cost him £130 to replace both tyres.
Blowing tyres on a pothole is not only inconvenient and costly, it can also put lives at risk. Christina Wood's husband is on the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. She explains, "He was on a mountain rescue callout and hit a crater of a pothole in Glencoe which blew the tyre and caused a slow puncture in another! We were already on the spare wheel because he got a flat a few days ago on another bit of Highland road... So Saturday night was an AA job! So he went to rescue someone and needed rescuing himself!" Instead of attending to the callout, he spent hours waiting in the Clachaig for the tow truck.
It isn't just tyres and wheels that get damaged by deteriorating roads. John King, a mountain guide based in the Northwest, told me that he's been driving around with a busted wing mirror and cracked windscreen. He said that he broke the wing mirror in a minor crash dodging "the craters on the A86," while the windscreen got cracked by loose stones on the A835.
The A82 potholes have their own Facebook group, with over 1500 members, while the Skye and Lochalsh potholes can claim a Facebook group of about 455 members. Almost every time you log into those groups, you encounter drivers reporting a pothole-related incident.
One user of the Skye and Lochalsh Potholes group bemoaned, "We have had a house in Skye for 11 years and travel regularly there from Renfrewshire. The roads are in a horrendous state this year. Never seen them so bad."
John King agrees: "I'd say the roads are in worse shape this year than I've seen for a few years," then adding, "The hard frosts will take their toll eventually and the roads were never in a particularly great condition to begin with!"
BEAR Scotland, the firm subcontracted by the Scottish government to maintain the trunk roads, blames the weather. A spokesperson said;
"This winter's sustained period of adverse weather conditions has led to an unprecedented deterioration of some sections of carriageway across the north of Scotland. There were 28 continuous days over December and January when temperatures dropped below zero for instance."
"A programme of urgent repairs is under way with over £6.5M invested from Transport Scotland to address the accelerated deterioration of trunk road surfaces across both the North West and North East Units. Our teams are working hard to carry out resurfacing repairs as quickly and safely as possible and to minimise disruption to road users wherever they can. It is worth noting that further cold temperatures and heavy rain conditions can hamper our repair plans."
Perhaps it should come as no surprise to anyone that the UK is cold and wet. Freeze/thaw cycles aren't new – indeed, there would not be winter climbing without them. It's also true that freeze/thaw cycles and water affect road surfaces. Potholes form when water ingresses into the pavement through cracks and holes in the surface. The cracks can be caused by poor drainage, utility works, or simply age and lackadaisical maintenance over the years. When the water freezes, it expands and the road crumbles. The damage is then accelerated by vehicles, particularly HGVs, driving over the weakened surface.
That doesn't explain why the roads seem more friable than ever this year, or why other places with snow and large temperature fluctuations don't seem to have the same problems. Visiting my parents in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I didn't find a single pothole.
I asked Richard Hayes, the chief executive of the Institute of Highway Engineers, why the roads have gotten into such a state. He explained;
"Roads are normally designed to withstand levels of rainfall consistent with the area they are to be constructed in. Adaptions of different material in the road foundation can minimize the deterioration which should see roads remaining intact for 25+ years. However, the climate, particularly rainfall and below zero temperatures, accelerate the deterioration. Utility openings, despite their efforts, also affect the structure of the road and create weaknesses in the structure which are exploited by the climate and heavy goods vehicles."
He added, "Often poor maintenance of drainage systems e.g. gulleys, ditches and grips (in rural areas) are the underlying problem, and this is the area of funding which has been affected the most over many years leading to an increase in deterioration levels. Most roads authorities have cut back on these essential maintenance activities as easy areas to reduce revenue spend… The overall spending is slowly reducing and it is reflected in a current concept of managed deterioration rather than maintenance of the valuable asset."
According to Gordon Mackay, the Head of Roads Transportation Services, the failing road infrastructure, not just in the Highlands but across the whole of Scotland, has been a crisis that's been coming down the road for a while. He told me,
"Over time, investment in road maintenance has seen a 20% reduction in the last seven years and a 45% reduction over twenty-five years."
If the surfaces are maintained and sealed, they don't crumble even in subzero temperatures, but Gordon says that hasn't been happening. "The current maintenance backlog [in Scotland alone] is £1.2 billion"
Motorists in Scotland who damage their cars on a pothole can claim compensation from BEAR if it's a trunk road, or the local council if it's any other road. In England the equivalent is Highways England or local authorities, while Traffic Wales does the job in the Principality.
At the January meeting of the Spean Bridge, Roy Bridge, and Achnacarry Community Council, Tommy Deans, the network manager for BEAR, said, "If you hit a pothole, send in a claim and we will look at our information and if we are at fault we will pay out."
That process, though, has led to a great deal of frustration for the drivers I spoke to, but not a great deal of success. Almost a dozen members of the A82 pothole group told me they had not received any compensation, and many seem to be sending their letters and emails into a black hole, not receiving any responses.
Leeane Curry wrote, "I hit a pothole just outside Drumnadrochit on the 19th December, £518 damage to my car. I sent off my claim and to date I've received nothing from them not even an acknowledgement letter that was promised to me. I have sent a total of 17 unanswered emails 3 of these being to Eddie Ross (Tommy's boss) I've lost count of the phone calls I've made."
Another user, Barry Paterson, complained, "Reported a pothole at Achnahannet after I'd hit it and got a cracking egg in my tyre as well, end of January beginning of February. Asked for a claim form and got nothing at all," while Bev Mitchell said, "I sent my claim off 2 weeks ago but haven't heard anything yet. We hit a pothole near Coran Ferry on the A82. Damaged 2 tyres beyond repair, needed a new wheel plus an overnight stay." These are a small sample of the stories people told me on the A82 Facebook group, all with the same theme.
Although I haven't yet found anyone who has received a successful payout, there must be some. According to the Highland council's data – which won't include the trunk roads because they don't maintain them – 92 claims were paid out last year at a total of £20,000. However, they received a total of 220, so the odds of a local authority accepting responsibility for the damage to your car may not be great.
A BEAR spokesperson said, "All claims received are assessed according to industry guidelines and processed accordingly on a case by case basis."
Perhaps claims aren't the real answer. It seems obvious that money would be better spent on maintaining the roads so that cars don't break, rather than paying out compensation after the event. This year's cold winter has delighted hillwalkers, skiers and climbers, but it has also brought to a head a problem which has been building for a while. Years of under-funded road maintenance have brought us a vast network of crumbling roads across the UK, and what's needed now, say critics, is a serious investment in the country's infrastructure, not just buck passing.