Getting to the bottom of pot holes

Recurrent winter road damage has prompted the DfT to examine best practice when dealing with pot holes. The Roads Surface Treatments Association (RSTA) digs deeper into the issue

The DfT’s review on best practice is being undertaken by the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP). It follows the devastating impact of three successive severe winters – and possibly another one predicted for this year – which resulted in over 2.7 million pot holes and widespread public annoyance and criticism, as well as a considerable repair bill. The review proposes a full examination of why pot hot holes occur, how best to avoid them appearing, how best to fix them once they have appeared and the development of best practice guidance that will be made readily available to all local highway authorities. The review’s report is due to be published in April 2012.
The review needs to examine some fundamental issues such as why there is no common approach across local highway authorities with regards to dealing with pot holes, why choosing the lowest cost, quick fix rather than specifying the best long-term solution is so prevalent and the general resistance towards considering new tested innovative road surface treatment products.

Addressing these issues will underline the reasons behind the lack of overall and widespread best practice and lead to an understanding as to why some local authorities choose not to seal their road surfaces despite evidence that this greatly enhances a road’s lifetime performance. It will also explore why many local authorities are reactive and carry out pot holes repairs rather than undertaking the planned road maintenance programme that would prevent them from occurring in the first place, and why local authorities often seem to progress autonomously through the same learning curve resulting in extensive, and no doubt expensive, widespread duplicative trial and error.
For the proposed code of practice to really work it must address both pot hole prevention and repair. In particular, it must indentify the physical mechanisms that can cause pot hole formation and the different solutions that can be applied; establish minimum service life standards for repair materials; and establish minimum technical standards for asphalt compaction. It should also provide guidance on selecting the best technical solution, as well as guidance on over-banding
and crack sealing. Lastly it should recognise that pot hole repairs are often done during the winter and so consideration should be given to use of admixtures in asphalt to improve mix adhesion and to use idiot-proof materials that can be more easily used by operatives to achieve good compaction which is the key to durable repairs.

It is important that all stakeholders sign-up and endorse the proposed code. That way, best practice can be captured and shared with resultant cost savings, minimised traffic disruption during repair works, adoption of new techniques and innovative products and enhanced service life of the repaired areas. Consideration should also be given to the fact that continuity of best practice is often affected when managing agent contracts (MACs) change hands. Different contractors often choose product solutions based on short-term commercial decisions rather than long-term technical performance. This is not in the best long-term interest of local highway authorities.
A particular area that needs addressing is that of workforce skills. The operatives engaged in pot hole repair are often low-skilled and working relatively autonomously with little control. Work practices, therefore, can be very different from the application guidance and the resultant repair can be poor. It is important that contractor operatives undertaking road surface maintenance should be fully trained and qualified to ensure that they apply correct work practices. Operatives must have minimum NVQs and CSCS skill cards proving competencies and knowledge. The Sector Scheme approach provides a proven route for the workforce up-skilling.
A number of local highway authorities provide examples of what good practice can achieve. Lancashire County Council and other councils have found that roads that have been surface dressed over the last five years have generally not developed pot holes. The surface dressing effectively seals the existing road surface to prevent water ingress and winter freeze/thaw action. Halton Borough Council has made very effective use of innovative proprietary products. Meanwhile, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council has been undertaking comparison of different pot hole repair materials for determine the best solution.
Ultimately, as these local authorities demonstrate, the development of best practice for repairing pot holes is about getting it right first time. The prevention and repair of pot holes when properly specified and correctly installed by a well-trained and qualified workforce will deliver the expected service life and provide good value-for-money.
The RSTA is working closely with the DfT/HMEP project team and all other stakeholders in developing and forwarding the proposed code of best practice. The plague of pot holes and the lack of a cohesive, agreed approach by local highway authorities results in a lack of consistency, ignorance of new effective techniques and products, and a waste of resources. The HMEP initiative is to be welcomed and the RSTA looks forward to its report next spring.

Written by Howard Robinson, chief executive of the Roads Surface Treatments Association (RSTA)

About the RSTA
The Road Surface Treatments Association (RSTA) aims to raise the awareness of the benefits of surfacing treatments and promote work force competence and safe working practices. Membership includes large national and regional contracting companies, Local Authority Direct Labour Services Organisations, materials and equipment suppliers.  


Please register to comment on this article