By Kotie Geldenhuys
Desperate to get the Umgeni Municipality’s attention to fix the dangerous potholes on the roads in the Howick area in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, residents participated in a tongue-in-cheek pothole fishing competition at the end of February 2021. This “competition” was hosted to voice their concerns about the collapsing road infrastructure along the Curry’s Post Road, a busy tourist road in the area (Govender, 2021). Although this was meant as a mockery of the municipality’s seeming inability to fix the potholes in the area, potholes across South Africa’s ageing road infrastructure are a big concern. They not only damage vehicles but also cost road users their lives.
Motorists are constantly confronted with poor road conditions and the threat of the dreaded pothole. Over the past few years, potholes have developed at an enormous rate on South African roads. According to the South African Automobile Association (AA), as much as 60% of South Africa’s 535 000 km road network have potholes or are in need of maintenance (De Villiers, 2018). In some areas, pothole repairs are swift, while in others, it may take months if not years to repair a pothole. Another big problem might be the quality of the repair to potholes, which often only lasts until the next rain shower.
Factors that contribute to the formation of potholes
Potholes are caused by the expansion and contraction of groundwater when water enters the ground under the road surface. The weight of vehicles which pass over the weak spot in the road will cause the tar of the road to be displaced or break down and create a pothole (Summit County Engineer, 2020). The increase in potholes can be attributed to reduced maintenance of many roads, combined with weather conditions such as higher than average seasonal rainfalls and changes in temperature. Apart from these factors, overloaded trucks and buses are also a big problem.
Heavy trucks cause the road surface to crack. Water then flows through these cracks into underlying layers which causes the loosening of the material, that eventually collapses and results in a pothole. It is therefore important that overloaded trucks and buses are addressed. This involves the effective control of traffic loading to ensure that it does not exceed the design loading (Paige-Green et al, 2010) and enforcement at weigh bridges.
Potholes not unique to South Africa
The pothole problem is not unique to South Africa. In fact, in 2018 it was reported that 2.2 million potholes on UK roads were repaired over a 12-month period at a total cost of nearly £120 million (Evans, 2018). A 2017/ 2018 study conducted by Confused.com, which is part of a British insurance company, found that the total depth of potholes in the UK is 33 422 m, which is three times the depth of the Pacific Ocean. In the USA, one pothole was around for so long that a man from Kansas City, Missouri threw a birthday party for it in July 2019, with a birthday cake and a candle (Newman, 2019). In the USA, damage caused to vehicles by potholes, costs drivers an average of $3 billion annually. If one takes into consideration that the average cost to build an entirely new high school building in the USA is $45 million, it means that the Americans can build 67 new high schools every year with the money they spend on repairs to vehicles as a result of the damage caused by potholes (Goreham, 2019). It is clear that potholes are a global problem that affects numerous countries.