Cyclists could die because of new government rules relaxing repairs to deep potholes, a coroner has warned.
Peter Sigee, assistant coroner for Greater Manchester North, said an apparent change in procedures on when potholes are deemed deep enough to need repair will “increase the risk of future deaths”.
His report to prevent future deaths has been sent to transport secretary Chris Grayling, following the death of Roger Hamer, 83, who suffered fatal injuries after hitting a pothole in Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester, on March 5 2016.
During Mr Hamer’s inquest, which ended in August, the jury at the coroner’s court found he probably died after his bicycle hit a pothole, generally in excess of 50mm deep, on Bury New Road.
Bury Council, the highway authority responsible for the maintenance of the road, currently has an “intervention level” of 40mm, so any potholes at that level or deeper are repaired.
But the inquest heard the council is now adopting a new procedure after the Department of Transport (DfT) issued new guidance in October 2016.
Mr Sigee noted that under the new procedure 40mm will be redefined as the “investigation level”, so that once a pothole is greater than 40mm a highway inspector will investigate it and consider whether a repair is needed.
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But the coroner said if 40mm is now specified in the new procedures as the minimum threshold for investigation, then defects which measure less than 40mm may not be investigated and defects of 40mm or above may not be repaired.
The coroner said while inspectors have the discretion to repair potholes which do not meet the criteria, he considers the new rules will increase the risk of fatalities, especially for cyclists.
Mr Sigee, in his report to Mr Grayling, writes: “In my opinion action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe you have the power to take such action.”
The DfT said it had responded to the coroner, by repeating the new guidance, and there was no change in policy.
It added that it is for local authorities to decide and determine the dimension of a pothole as a basis for their decision-making and the new procedures are clearer and involve a “risk-based approach” with road inspectors making a judgment on which repairs are done.
A number of deaths in the UK have already been attributed to cyclists hitting potholes while riding.
Last week, The Times reported that 467 cyclists had been involved in accidents at least partly caused by “poor or defective” roads in the past five years.
A DfT spokeswoman said: “This is a tragic case and we have responded to the Assistant Coroner.
“The UK has some of the safest roads in the world but we are always looking to improve safety.
“We are giving councils record levels of capital funding – more than £7.1bn up to 2021 – to improve local roads and repair potholes.
“It is vital councils spend this to keep roads in good condition to keep all users safe, especially cyclists.”
Sam Jones, a campaigner at Cycling UK, said: “The suggested intervention level of 40mm suggests the local authority is in the unacceptable position of having to prioritise between the cost of maintaining the road over the safety of vulnerable road users.
“Rather than building new roads, the Government should adopt a ‘fix it first’ policy.
“The UK has an estimated £12 billion pothole problem that a £6 billion pothole fund is meant to fix by 2021.
“If the government was serious about mending our roads, it would reallocate funding from the £15 billion Road Investment Strategy and give local authorities the means to bring Britain’s roads into an acceptable condition.”
Catherine James, a serious injury lawyer at solicitors Irwin Mitchell, representing Mr Hamer’s family in a claim for compensation from Bury Council, said: “We shared those concerns that were raised by Mr Sigee, assistant coroner, in his report.
“Particularly about the proposed changes to procedures which would mean that the previous intervention level becomes an investigation level and the potential risks that could pose to road users.”