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The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have a problem. 

Ottawa has a pothole problem. We can tell you that just from seeing what it’s doing to vehicles all over the Capital Region. The number of cars we see with damage sustained by potholes in the last few years has been steadily on the rise. It’s become so pervasive that almost every day, we are getting questions from our customers related to Ottawa’s pothole plague.

So in this piece, we are going to try to answer some of the most regular questions we get and help you navigate around this stubborn problem.

Why are there so many potholes?

A pothole begins when water gets under the roadbed in a particular spot. As the temperature drops, this water freezes and expands, pushing up against the underside of the asphalt. Over time, the freezing and thawing begin to weaken the road from below. As cars drive above, their weight creates additional strain, eventually causing the pavement to sink into the cavity formed by the water.  

The trouble for the Ottawa area is just how often the roads here experience a pattern of freeze and thaw. The frequent back and forth steadily deteriorate our roadways more so than in most other places. And naturally, as our roads age, we are going to have more and more potholes to fill. 

What sort of damage do potholes cause?

If a pothole isn’t too big and the vehicle that passes over it has its tires adequately inflated and its suspension in good repair, there should be little to no harm. However, if the pothole is quite large or the vehicle isn’t ready to absorb the sudden shock, there can be considerable damage. 

The most common issues we see are bent rims and damaged tires, but these can be enough to seriously impair the way your car responds and replacing wheels can be costly. Many times a pothole will merely throw off the vehicle’s alignment, which is a quick fix. Although, occasionally, we see pothole damage that has broken struts, snapped control arms, or even banged up the undercarriage so as to make the vehicle unsafe to drive.

What’s essential for drivers when they hit a pothole, is to look for a safe opportunity to pull over and inspect the wheels. If you see visible damage to any part of the wheel, your best option is likely to swap it for the spare. When there is no visible damage, it doesn’t mean that you are necessarily in the clear. When you resume driving, pay attention to any strange sounds and notice if the vehicle responds differently than usual. If anything seems off, it’s probably worth a quick inspection with your mechanic. 

What is the City doing about it?

The City of Ottawa’s 2020 budget has again taken into account just how considerable a scourge potholes are in this area. In 2018 Ottawa’s pothole budget was raised to $8 million. In 2019 it went up to $9 million, and for the 2020 budget year, we have seen that number go up again to $9.8 million. Of course, this increase is in addition to the budget item for resurfacing roads in general. For comparison, the City of Toronto budgets approximately $5 million for pothole repair. 

In 2019, the City of Ottawa also launched a pilot program to test the Python 5000. This innovative vehicle allows crews to approach and mend potholes throughout the City quickly, without ever getting out. Each one costs about $400,000, and the City had two in operation this past summer. There has not been word yet on whether the program is continuing. 

How should I report a pothole?

With the number of potholes that occur every year in the National Capital Region, there is no way anyone could report them all. However, if you have a particular pothole that has caused you problems or seems to be being overlooked, make sure you flag it for the City. For a run of the mill pothole, they ask that you complete the reporting form on the City’s website. Although, if the pothole is exceptionally large or presenting an imminent danger to motorists, be sure to call it into 311. Additional criteria for a 311 pothole report is available here.

Will the City pay to fix the damage?

The short answer to this is no. It’s probably going to be a waste of time to attempt to claim your pothole damage costs with the City. However, that’s not to say you can’t try. 

When you’re attempting to understanding if the City is liable for damages caused by a pothole, the place to start is with the Province’s Minimum Maintenance Standards for Municipal Highways regulations. The act divides all of Ontario’s streets into six classes based on the type of road and volume of traffic. So depending on which “category of road” a pothole is on will determine if it’s large enough to be needing repair and how quickly they need to get it fixed. The range of time a pothole can sit unfilled can be quite considerable before the municipality is considered officially at fault. As the City of Ottawa states on their website: 

These Provincial government standards require the City to fix a pothole within a period that ranges between 4 days and 30 days, depending on the size of the pothole and whether it is on a paved or an unpaved road. It is important to note that the City’s obligation to fix a pothole is triggered only after the municipality becomes aware of the problem.

For anyone making a claim, this means a few different things. First, the pothole that damaged your car had to have been reported. Then it depends on the road type, and the time elapsed since it was reported. And, finally, you have to provide photos, documentation of the repair, and statements as to how it happened. 

As they say, you can’t fight City hall. 

What should I do to prevent pothole damage? 

Avoid the pothole

If you see the pothole far enough in advance that you can safely change lanes, do so. If you pass the same pothole regularly as part of your commute, make sure you drive in the parallel lane and don’t forget to report it using the online form or 311. However, if notice the pothole at the last minute, do not attempt to swerve. You may up putting yourself, your vehicle, and other drivers in greater danger. Not to mention, hitting a pothole on an angle can make the damage even more server.

Slow down

If you’re going to hit a pothole, gradually reduce the speed of your car. By slowing the vehicle, you reduce the power of the impact and potentially save yourself a considerable repair bill. Just remember, this needs to be a progressive slow down. If you slam on the brakes quickly, it’s possible to lock the tires and lose control of the car.

Avoid the curb lane

When it’s wet, and there are puddles on the streets, it becomes challenging to see potholes. As the water drains away for the road, it can pool near the edges, creating puddles that hide the severity of potholes. Sometimes these puddles completely obscure a pothole from view. By staying in the centre lane, you give yourself a better chance to see them before it’s too late.

Keep your car in good repair

The first thing is to inspect your tire pressure regularly. Your car’s ability to survive a pothole unscathed is increased dramatically by having your tires inflated to the proper level. Have your suspension checked periodically. And, when you’re having your winter or all-season tires put on, ask the technician to inspect the state of the rims. 

Report potholes

It can seem like a massive undertaking, given just how many of them we are dealing with here in Ottawa. However, reporting potholes is the first step in getting them patched. And a patched pothole isn’t causing damage to anyone’s car. Of course, if they’re reported and not repaired, it could make a big difference in someone else getting reimbursed by the City for their damage.