R50 BILLION – that’s how much motorists are spending every year on vehicle repairs and injuries caused by potholes, according to a study by the SA Road Federation (SARF).
The figure is based on information obtained from claims to insurance companies for car repairs for, among other things, shock absorbers, vehicle suspensions, tyre replacements and repairs.
It includes the cost of medical treatment of injuries sustained in accidents caused by potholes or motorists swerving to avoid them.
SARF executive director Malcolm Mitchell said there was a strong correlation between the road condition and road-user costs.
“R50bn… it is a conservative figure. We don’t know for certain, but it is a large amount of money.”
With proper road maintenance by local government, it wouldn’t be nearly as high, according to the CSIR, which has released a study into the causes, costs and solutions to South Africa’s pothole problem.
CSIR built environment executive director Hans Ittman said the road maintenance backlog stood at R100bn and focus needed to shift from developing more roads to maintaining existing ones.
It’s not only our heavy summer rains that could be blamed, said chief researcher Dr Phil PaigeGreen. “The combination of unusually wet conditions over long periods, excessive traffic and poorly maintained roads is a sure recipe for the development of potholes.”
According to Paige-Green, potholes are formed when water seeps into cracks in the road surface and weakens its structure. To prevent this, that top black layer of road – commonly referred to as “tar”, but actually a material called “bitumen” – has to be looked after. Bitumen is a sealant, acting as a waterproof layer to roads. But time takes its toll on the material.
Constant exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun dries it out and makes it harder and less flexible. Heavy traffic then puts it under pressure and deforms it.
And, just like a wire that is constantly bent backwards and forwards, the bitumen begins to break and crack. If the cracks were repaired, that is where the problem would end. But when water gets into cracks the potholes start to form. But this proactive maintenance is not happening on South Africa’s provincial roads.
“Potholes are… ‘repaired’ on an ad hoc or reactive basis, often quite some time after their formation,” reads the study.
“When potholes are not repaired timeously, they deteriorate rapidly and become larger and deeper until patching maintenance is no longer possible. Expensive reconstruction of the road is then necessary.”
It’s an issue that could be avoided with continuous, preemptive maintenance. That grey, dried-out bitumen can be restored with a rejuvenating spray at just R5 a square metre. Wait for cracks or potholes to show, and you are looking at between R15 and R38 a square metre for a new layer of bitumen. Allow the road to deteriorate completely and the cost rockets to R3.5 million per kilometre of road that needs to be repaired.
Municipal budget constraints exacerbate the problem – only R9.2bn is being allocated to road maintenance each year. About R32bn is needed.
“It is imperative that funding be provided… for preventative, rather than reactive, routine road maintenance,” said Paige-Green. “That will go a long way towards saving costs of the repeated patching of potholes which is often incorrectly done.”
Last year’s rainy season brought a torrent of car accidents caused by potholes. With those summer storm clouds gathering, Paige-Green can only hope for the best.
By Kriten van Schie
03/12/10 Late Edition