Hole-y Moley: Potholes, Sinkholes And How Insurance Can Leave You In A Ditch


May 7, 2024
Team Pineapple

Did you know that dodgeball originated in Africa more than 200 years ago?

What’s now a fun and jocular activity was once a deadly game. African tribes used to rely on this sport to hit their opponents, usually members of opposing tribes, with rocks to injure them.

It’s 2023, and the game has returned to its life-threatening roots. 

Instead of dodging balls and rocks in South Africa, we’re avoiding something worse: potholes, sinkholes, ALL THE HOLES.

In 2022, the South African Road Federation (SARF) reported that the country had a whopping 25 million potholes, a significant leap from 15 million just half a decade ago. 

And while potholes can be menacing, sinkholes are in a league of their own – capable of swallowing entire sections of roads or vehicles and representing severe infrastructure and safety challenges. 

As we delve deeper, we'll explore the nuances of these road hazards and the implications for South African motorists.

Potholes vs Sinkholes: Know the Difference

The state of our roads received further negative attention when then Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula made a startling announcement: Japan’s population isn’t the only thing ageing; about 80% of South African roads have outlived their 20-year lifespan.

Interestingly, the peak times for pothole-related mishaps aren't during rush hour traffic but during off-peak times. 

Drivers seize the momentary freedom of less congested roads by speeding up, only to be unpleasantly surprised by an abrupt pothole or, worse, a treacherous sinkhole.

You might be wondering what the difference between the two is; they are just holes in the ground, right? 

Wrong. Let’s break it down…

1. Potholes: The Nuisance on the Surface

2. Sinkholes: The Deep and Dangerous Pitfalls


Depressions/holes in the surface of a roadway resulting from the wear and tear of traffic combined with the effects of weather, especially water.

Depressions/holes in the ground are caused by the collapse of a surface layer. They’re typically much deeper and wider, sometimes swallowing whole vehicles or buildings.


Primarily formed due to the expansion and contraction of groundwater beneath the pavement. When water gets into cracks in the road, it freezes and expands, pushing the pavement up. When the ice melts, a void is left, collapsing under vehicles' weight, creating a pothole.

Mainly forms in areas with soluble bedrock (like limestone) beneath the ground surface. Over time, as this bedrock dissolves due to water (often acidic from absorbing carbon dioxide), it can create caverns. When these caverns grow too large or too close to the surface, the ground above can collapse, forming a sinkhole.

Damage to Vehicles

Tyre punctures, wheel damage, misalignment, suspension damage, and even damage to the vehicle's undercarriage.

It has the capability to swallow vehicles whole, and even if a car isn't entirely consumed, it can suffer severe structural damage from a partial sinkhole collapse.

The Cost of Roadway Blemishes

The discussion often veers towards immediate vehicle damage when discussing potholes and sinkholes. 

And rightfully so.

A survey conducted last year by an anonymous insurance company revealed that pothole-related claims shot up by 15%. In comparison, enquiries involving damaged tyres rose 9% compared to 2021.

In Johannesburg alone, R24.8 million was paid during the third quarter of 2022 for vehicle damage claims caused by potholes. And in February 2023, 12 281 potholes were reported across the city.

However, there’s also the actual cost and repercussions to consider. And much like the potholes and sinkholes, these road hazards can run much deeper.

A nasty run-in with these hellish holes can lead to the following damage to your vehicle:

  • Tyres: A sudden encounter with a deep pothole can cause instant tyre punctures or even blowouts (and no, we don't mean the type you get at the salon), making it dangerous at high speeds.

  • Rims: Metal rims can get bent or cracked, while alloy wheels, commonly used in modern cars, can suffer from chips or shatter upon a hard impact.

  • Suspension: The vehicle’s suspension system, designed to absorb shocks and ensure smooth driving, can be severely damaged. Components like shock absorbers, struts, and ball joints can be affected.

  • Alignment: Hitting a pothole or getting too close to a sinkhole can knock your car's wheels out of alignment, affecting its driveability and leading to uneven tyre wear.

Encounters with these roadway blemishes might not always result in instantly noticeable damage. However, repeated encounters can accelerate the wear and tear on the vehicle over time, leading to the need for more frequent maintenance and early replacements.

It can also reduce the lifespan of tyres due to uneven wear patterns and decrease fuel efficiency from misaligned wheels or damaged suspension.

To further add insult to injury, there’s more than just material loss to consider.

A sudden jolt can cause whiplash or other injuries to a person, especially if the vehicle is travelling at a considerable speed.

And those are just potholes; sinkholes present an even greater danger. 

If your car gets sucked into a sinkhole and is trapped, you and your passengers can suffer from trauma, injuries, or worse, if you can't exit the vehicle in time. The aftermath can lead to prolonged medical treatments, loss of income, and even permanent disabilities.

Navigating the Insurance Maze

With potholes and sinkholes becoming an unfortunate but seemingly permanent fixture on South African roads, understanding the intricacies of car insurance related to such hazards is more crucial than ever.

Determining if damages from potholes and sinkholes are covered has become a matter of financial life and death.

Comprehensive vehicle insurance typically covers these damages, but it’s always better to verify. 

Comprehensive car insurance is the most inclusive form of vehicle cover. It protects against theft, collisions with other vehicles and covers damages resulting from unexpected events, including potholes and sinkholes (most of the time, again, it’s best to check with your insurer).

But, if you want to stay claim-free, it’s also possible to seek compensation directly from a roads authority like The South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL). They process claims or direct them to the specific contractor on that stretch of road you were driving on at the time of the incident.

They will treat your claim like a regular car insurance claim, meaning you have to prove that roadworks or potholes are responsible for the damage to your car. 

You’ll be asked to submit photos or surveillance video evidence clearly showing that a road defect is at fault and that your vehicle suffered harm. 

So, ensure you cover all your bases by always taking photos of your car, the pothole and the road.

Along with the following documents:  

  • ID
  • Driver’s license
  • The registration details of your vehicle
  • Three written quotes for repair
  • A police affidavit by the claimant
  • Letter from the insurance company confirming that the claim was not logged with  them. 

Running into a pothole can result in immediate visible damages like bent rims or punctured tyres. 

But sometimes, the damage is internal and may affect your car's alignment or suspension, which can become evident over time and possibly lead to harm and further damage.

Whereas a sinkhole can swallow a car whole or severely damage its undercarriage. 

The repair costs for sinkhole-related damages can be significantly higher than those for potholes. However, a robust, comprehensive insurance policy should cover both scenarios. 

With comprehensive coverage, drivers can avoid hefty bills to repair the damages caused by these roadway imperfections. 

Still, it's crucial to check for any specific exclusions or conditions.

Given the increasing frequency of potholes and the unpredictability of sinkholes, not having this coverage is a gamble few can afford to take.

Beyond repair costs, if a sinkhole or pothole results in an accident causing injury to another party, the liability costs can be astronomical. Comprehensive insurance usually protects against such liabilities.

Taking Precaution: How to Spot and Avoid These Hazards

While we can't always predict where the next pothole or sinkhole will appear, by being vigilant and informed, we can certainly reduce the risks they pose by being alert and informed. 

Spotting the Warning Signs

Potholes start as small cracks or depressions in the road. Over time, they can widen and deepen with the stress of traffic and weather. 

Look out for pools of water on the road after rain, as these can sometimes indicate a pothole lurking beneath the surface.

Sinkholes are trickier to predict. 

They can result from the sudden collapse of the ground due to underlying factors like eroded limestone or water drainage issues. 

However, you can look for cracks in the road or ground, depressions, or unusual patches of sagging vegetation.

Driving Techniques to Minimize Damage and Ensure Safety

Always keep a safe following distance, allowing enough reaction time to avoid sudden obstacles.

If you can't avoid a pothole, it's safer to slow down and drive through it rather than swerving suddenly, which can lead to accidents. When you spot a hazard, brake safely and firmly without veering, ensuring you don't cause a pile-up behind you.

Proper lighting, especially during low light conditions, and good headlights can also help you spot potholes and sinkholes from a distance.

*Unavoidable loadshedding…

Stay Updated on Road Conditions

  1. Use navigation apps; most modern ones often have features where drivers can report road conditions, including potholes and other hazards. You can do your part with apps like Waze that allow you to document, share and alert others of major potholes in the road.

  1. Local traffic updates and even radio stations are resources you can also use to stay updated.

Sometimes, they give you a heads-up on major road disruptions, including the emergence of significant potholes or sinkholes.

  1. There’s also the option of local community groups on social media platforms where residents share real-time updates about various issues, including road conditions.

Safe driving isn't just about obeying speed limits; it's about understanding the road, its conditions, and how best to navigate its challenges.

Reporting and Responsibility: Playing Your Part

When driving, remember that you’re part of a bigger community; therefore, you need to be more responsible and cautious for the sake of other motorists. 

When you encounter a pothole or sinkhole, your role doesn't end by merely swerving to avoid it. Proactively reporting these hazards can also help mitigate potential risks for other drivers. 

Here's how you can actively contribute to making South African roads safer for everyone.

  1. Most local municipalities and road authorities have dedicated helplines or online portals where citizens can report issues. It's a good practice to note these contacts if you're frequently on the road.

  1. When reporting, be as specific as possible. Provide exact locations, the severity of the pothole or sinkhole, and even attach pictures; this can be immensely helpful for swift action.

  1. Apps like Pothole Patrol and Vala Zonke allow users to mark road hazards, including potholes, in real time. This warns other drivers and can sometimes be used as a data source by road authorities.

  1. Platforms like Facebook or WhatsApp have numerous local community groups where you can share information about road conditions—ensuring that a broader audience stays informed, especially in smaller communities.

  1. Be attentive and avoid distractions like your mobile phone. If you have to send that SMS immediately, do it while safely pulled over, or better yet, remember to do it after you've safely reached your destination.

By discussing these issues on various public platforms, communities can collectively advocate for faster solutions and hold authorities accountable.


Driving in South Africa can feel like navigating a maze with new challenges at every turn. 

From the sinister sinkholes to the pesky potholes that seem to multiply overnight, drivers must always remain vigilant. 

And while we can't control every challenge, we can certainly be prepared for it. A robust insurance policy isn't just a document; it's peace of mind on these tumultuous roads.

Don't let the unexpected leave you stranded or financially burdened. 

Ensure you're adequately covered for all eventualities, be it sudden damages or weather-related incidents. 

Pineapple's comprehensive insurance offers coverage for accidental damage and weather disruptions and the convenience of 24/7 towing assistance.

When life already has so many uncertainties, why gamble with your insurance?

It's quick, affordable, comprehensive and starts at a low R589 p/m  (*R19-ish a day. Get a quote for car insurance NOW; it only takes 90 seconds, MAX.

Even the most imperfect roads become a journey worth taking with the right partner (a.k.a. Pineapple) - get a quote now!

Pineapple (FSP 48650) is underwritten by Old Mutual Alternative Risk Transfer Insure Limited, a licensed Non-Life Insurer and authorised FSP. T&Cs apply. Premium is risk profile dependent.

Please Note: The information provided above is for informational purposes only; you should not construe any such information as legal or financial advice.

Team Pineapple

Team Pineapple comprises our company’s top talents, who are dedicated to creating clear, high-quality content on essential vehicle insurance topics. This diverse group, including actuaries, accountants, data scientists, and insurance professionals across South Africa, collaborates to produce enlightening and empowering articles.

Each piece is thoroughly researched, factually accurate, and rigorously reviewed to ensure quality.

*We say they’re the finest because we want them to keep writing for us!

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Please Note: The information provided above is for informational purposes only; you should not construe any such information as legal or financial advice.

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