This article originally appeared in Bridge Michigan. Read more here

Michigan drivers are all too familiar with the extra costs of driving on crumbling roads, shelling out on average hundreds of dollars per year for pothole-related repairs.

Under limited circumstances, there’s hope for relief: Michigan law allows drivers to seek damages under $1,000 for defective highways if road agencies knew or should have known about a defect “and had a reasonable time to repair it” before the mishap.

But the system typically leaves drivers empty-handed, with the state approving 7.9 percent of claims since 2018. The success rate is lower among county road agencies. In all, agencies surveyed by Bridge Michigan doled out less than $150,000 since 2018 for highway damage claims — or about the cost to resurface 1/10th of a mile of a highway.

Advocates of the status quo say money paid to drivers diverts from the pool of money available to fix roads, but others surveyed by Bridge Michigan said the Legislature could provide relief to drivers without breaking the bank.

“We’ve got to be in a position to do both things — fund and fix our roads as best we can, but also be in a situation where if somebody is put out a couple hundred dollars, then we should be able to help them out,” said Sen. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township, who in a previous legislative session introduced bills aimed at reforming the damage claims process.

“Good ideas stick around, and so maybe there’s an opportunity to get something done here.”

Here’s a look at some of the options.

Solution 1: Simplify claims process

At minimum, a centralized statewide claims system would make it easier for people to figure out where to file claims and what is required, said Jonathan Marko, a Detroit personal injury attorney.

“There’s a much better way to do it than we have now, which leaves the motorist with a remedy, in theory, but no remedy in reality,” he said.

Michigan has more than 122,000 miles of public roadways that are maintained by a patchwork of state and local agencies.

State trunklines have numbered highway signs that start with a word or a letter, such as Interstate 75, M-43 or US 23, but it can be harder for drivers to distinguish whether other roads are among the 90,281 miles of roads maintained by one of Michigan’s 83 county road commissions or if they’re on one of the 21,396 miles of city streets that are the responsibility of the individual municipality.

Currently, drivers hoping to file a claim who don’t know what jurisdiction the road is in must check with MDOT or the local county road association to track down where to file the claim.

They’re also in a time crunch: When damage occurs, drivers have 120 days for state roads and 90 days for local ones to file a claim form detailing the damage, the date and location of the accident and the amount requested for reimbursement.

“It’s almost impossible for a layperson because it just defies common sense…it’s not a friendly system,” Marko said.

One easy first step: Post the claims process and application forms on county websites.

Of Michigan’s 83 county road agencies, 20 have posted damage claim forms online or have readily available information on their websites about how to file one, a Bridge Michigan review found.

The Kent County Road Commission, representing Michigan’s fourth-largest county, notes on its site that few claims get approved and recommends drivers call if they believe their situation meets legal requirements. The agency didn’t report any damage claims filed in the last five years.

In 2019, the city of Omaha, Nebraska started taking pothole damage claims for the first time, which resulted in thousands of new filings (and many disappointed drivers).

The city now has an interactive pothole hotline and website with a map displaying recent reports and claims, and drivers exploring a pothole damage claim can check in advance whether the pothole they hit may qualify for reimbursement before submitting the form.

Solution 2: Raise claim limits

Michigan law caps claims at $1,000. Trouble is, a single pothole can easily cause far more damage to cars.

Eaton Rapids resident Robert Williams, a retired state employee, paid $10,000 last summer after an axle broke on his trailer when it hit a pothole on US-127 in mid-Michigan.

He sought $999 from Michigan to cover a fraction of the damage. The claim was rejected.

“The weekend before we were traveling, we’d gone that same route three times, and it was fine,” said Williams, a craft show vendor who travels the state frequently. “But on this particular weekend, as we were heading north, (there) was a hole there.”

Road conditions cost Michigan drivers $4.3 billion annually in vehicle operating costs, an average of $1,093 per household, according to a 2022 report from TRIP, a Washington, DC-based transportation research nonprofit.

In California, the state transportation department allows drivers to submit claims of up to $10,000 without involving courts.

A bill introduced in Michigan in 2018 by Camilleri, then a state representative, would have bumped up the maximum amount for pothole damage claims to $5,000. The bill never got a hearing from the Republican-majority Legislature.

“When you hit a pothole, it costs you a lot of money,” Camilleri told Bridge. “Obviously, our road agencies and MDOT would not like (claims reforms), but it is a reality that people’s property is damaged based on the condition of a road, and that just isn’t fair.”

Camilleri said his main concern is working toward a long-term funding solution for roads. But he views Michigan residents paying out of pocket for potholes as a consumer protection issue, and if there’s room in the budget, he said he’d be open to revisiting damage claims reforms.

He said he’d also be interested in raising awareness of the claims process, noting that when he first found out about it, he thought, “if a state lawmaker is just finding out that this type of program exists, then there’s no way regular residents know about this.”

Solution 3: Invest in a pothole repair pool

Former Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, in 2018 proposed creating a $5 million fund for reimbursing drivers, suggesting a separate “emergency claims” process that would reimburse drivers with legitimate pothole damage claims regardless of when MDOT was made aware of the issue.

His proposal was rejected.

At the time, Ananich called pothole repair costs a “backdoor tax” for drivers who have to pay out of pocket for blown tires, damaged rims, alignment issues and more.

“For those who have tried to maneuver through the Department of Transportation to be reimbursed for the damage that was done through no fault of their own, good luck maneuvering through that bureaucracy,” Ananich said, adding that an easy-to-access reimbursement fund would “start to address a wrong that happens to individuals all across this state.”

House Transportation Chair Nate Shannon, D-Sterling Heights, said he’s open to debate about solutions.

“I want to help my constituents out as much as possible — they need to be aware of the policy,” Shannon said. “Hopefully, if they’re aware, they could take advantage of it.”

Many states around the U.S. have similar policies to Michigan’s, although the filing requirements and payments vary widely.

Tennessee approves about 1 percent of damage claims filed each year, Nashville television station WSMV4 reported in 2022. A 2020 report from television station WPVI Action News in Philadelphia found that while Pennsylvania residents had filed more than 2,100 claims in the last three years, none received payouts.

In Texas, drivers have no options for recourse, as state law prohibits the use of state funds to pay for roadway-induced property damage.

Other governments are more generous.

Nearly half of the 1,400 drivers who filed damage claims with the city of Chicago last year received payouts averaging $333, ABC 7 Chicago reported. The system has a big caveat: Officials require a police report of the incident, and even if approved, the city only reimburses up to half the cost of repairs under the assumption that drivers are partially responsible for not avoiding the pothole.

Transportation experts say long-term road funding repairs may the best bet for reducing potholes, but in the interim, some say a more accessible damage claims process and other reforms would help Michigan drivers.

Solution 4: Revisit immunity laws

Legally, nothing is stopping road agencies from accepting more responsibility for pothole repairs, attorneys said, and lawmakers could revisit existing governmental immunity laws if there was political will to do so.

Past Michigan Supreme Court rulings have narrowed the scope of lawsuits that could be brought against governments — including one decision that determined only highways, not the shoulder, must be maintained to reasonable repair standards, said Bryan Waldman, president of Sinas Dramis Law Firm, which handles personal injury cases.

It’s not unheard of for states to revisit government immunity issues. In Georgia, for example, voters in 2020 approved a ballot measure rolling back recent expansions of state immunity laws.

Legislation introduced in 2018 by then-Rep. Patrick Green, D-Warren, aimed to change the highway damage claims status quo by lowering the time frame under government immunity laws for road agencies to repair a defect from 30 days prior to the damage to seven days prior.

That legislation went nowhere, and any future efforts to roll back government immunity protections would likely face backlash from state and local entities.

Solution 5: Fix the roads

To many transportation experts, the simplest solution is the most obvious: spend more money to fix roads.

A road bonding plan approved by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in early 2020 boosted investment in state roads, and Michigan communities gained $10 billion in one-time federal funding from an infrastructure plan approved by Congress and President Joe Biden.

But many Michigan roads are still in tough shape: a Michigan transportation council analysis rated 45 percent of local roads and 33 percent of state roads in poor condition.

A separate industry report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers — whose members design construction projects and would benefit from more funding — gave Michigan a D for roads, a D+ for bridges and a C- overall.

Money “really is the main barrier, and unless you can change weather patterns in the state of Michigan, then that’s really your only other option” for avoiding messy potholes, said Lance Binoniemi, MITA’s vice president of government affairs.