If you’re lucky, you’ll see a pothole looming ahead and have time to change lanes. But if it’s dark or you’re distracted, it gets a lot harder to miss. No matter where you live, this is the reality of potholes.
These road hazards are more than just annoying — they’re expensive. A 2016 AAA study found that potholes cost drivers in the U.S. approximately $3 billion each year, estimating that each repair runs $300 on average. How much you pay depends on how many potholes you hit — and what kind of damage they do to your car.
Let’s look at how potholes are formed.
What causes a pothole?
Potholes can form in a variety of ways. No matter where you live, you’re likely to encounter one at some point. Let’s look at some of the ways they’re created.
Erosion under the road
Underneath that smooth, paved surface, the earth erodes and moves over time, weakening support. The pressure created by traffic causes the road surface to crack and collapse, creating a small hole. As more and more vehicles drive over these small holes, they become bigger and bigger, turning into potholes.
Freezing and thawing
Roads in cold climates get stressed by repeated freezing and thawing. Cracks, caused by pavement wear and erosion of the earth underneath it, allow water to enter when it rains or snows.
When temperatures are above freezing, the liquid water works its way through all these cracks and into the underlying layers of the road’s structure. And when the temperature of the road goes below freezing, the water freezes and expands by about 10%, making the cracks larger. Pieces of the roadway can come loose and break off.
Eventually, the cracked pavement breaks up and becomes a pothole. This cycle speeds up during spring, when above-freezing days are often followed by below-freezing nights.
In very hot climates, rain from a rare storm can work its way into the road surface, where it gets trapped. When the blazing hot sun starts baking the road, the water turns into steam, loosening pieces of the pavement and creating the beginnings of a pothole. Traffic does the rest.
There are approximately 300 million registered vehicles in the U.S., which means a lot of traffic on the road. This stresses the pavement, and is compounded by big rigs and other heavy trucks. The road surface starts to degrade, causing cracks and leading to the production of potholes.
Poor road maintenance
How potholes can hurt your car
Potholes can damage all sorts of parts on your car, and can even cause accidents and injuries.
If you’ve hit one and noticed any of the following problems, you can get an estimate for your repairs before getting it fixed. Here are some of the more common issues these hazards create.
Your tires are the place where your vehicle meets the road. They’re your first line of defense — and the most vulnerable item when you hit a pothole. When you hit one, the hard edge of the pothole pushes your tire against the wheel. This can damage the tire’s tread, sidewall or internal belts. The tire can blow out completely during impact, or it may fail later.
If the tire survives the initial impact, watch for a bulge or bubble in the sidewall. There could be a gouge where a piece of the tread or sidewall was lost. Or you may start to feel a vibration through the steering wheel or the body of the car.
Solution: A damaged tire needs immediate attention — it shouldn’t be driven on. Put on your spare, if you have one, or have the vehicle towed to a mechanic. Tread damage may be repairable, but sidewall damage usually isn’t.
Today’s aluminum alloy wheels perform well overall, but a massive impact from a pothole can seriously damage them. The average distance between the tire tread and the wheel has decreased in the past few decades, making damage more likely.
Pothole impacts create a huge amount of force, focused on a single point on your wheel, which can bend it so it’s no longer round. After such a big hit, you may notice a vibration as you drive.
Potholes can also crack your wheels. This may result in chipping, or even a piece of the rim breaking off. There could also be a hairline crack in the wheel, one that’s difficult or impossible to see. Keep an eye on the tire mounted on the affected wheel — it may start losing air.
Solution: Many bent wheels can be repaired if the damage isn’t too severe. Cracked, chipped or otherwise structurally compromised wheels are unsafe to drive on, and will need to be replaced. Ask your mechanic for a good wheel shop. While you’re at it, have him or her check for any other damage from the pothole.
Suspension and steering damage
Pothole damage can go way beyond your tires and wheels. Your suspension, which attaches those wheels to the rest of your vehicle, can also suffer. Today’s suspension and steering systems are complex mechanisms, with plenty of parts that can get bent, broken or knocked out of alignment:
- Ball joints
- Shocks and struts
- Control arms
- Tie rods
- Sway bars
When this happens, your car may pull to one side, or the steering wheel may point to one side when you’re driving straight. You might feel vibrations and hear odd sounds that you hadn’t noticed before.
Solution: Have your mechanic inspect your suspension components for any damage. Damaged parts can be replaced with new ones, and the entire system can be realigned.
Exhaust system damage
Your exhaust pipes, catalytic converter and muffler are attached to the underside of your car, and can be menaced by potholes if they’re deep enough. Possible damage can include cracked pipes, dented and scraped converters and mufflers, and separations between their connections. You may notice that your exhaust suddenly sounds much louder, or there may be a dragging sound from a pipe that was knocked loose and is making contact with the ground.
Solution: Call your mechanic immediately and schedule repairs. Any damage to your exhaust system can cause poisonous gases to leak inside your vehicle. If nothing is dragging on the ground, drive directly to your mechanic with all the windows open. If parts have come loose, have your vehicle towed instead.
There are other components underneath your vehicle that can scrape against a bad pothole. Brake lines carry brake fluid to the brakes on each wheel. Parking brake cables may be routed under the floor. Fuel tanks can be mounted underneath. Your engine’s oil pan hangs down and is exposed. The floor itself can be punctured or torn.
After a serious pothole, you may notice a fluid leak under your vehicle, or possibly smell gasoline. Your brakes or parking brake may stop working as well as you’re used to. These are bad signs.
Solution: Damage to your braking system, gas tank or oil pan are serious issues that will need immediate attention from a mechanic. If your vehicle’s floor is damaged, it should be repaired to prevent rust and keep water and exhaust gases from getting inside.
If your car rides low or has additions like front spoilers and air dams, side skirts and rear bumper valances, these can get damaged by big potholes. The results can include scrapes, cracks or broken pieces.
Solution: While cosmetic damage to these low-hanging body parts looks awful, there’s not much of functional problem when a pothole smashes them. If the damage is severe enough, you might need to replace components like fog lights or parking sensors, if your vehicle has them built into its bumpers.
Driving techniques for potholes
Of course, the best way to minimize pothole damage is to not hit any. Here’s how to avoid them as much as possible, and what to do if one is unavoidable.
Yes, this means not looking at your phone. It also means waiting to mess with the radio presets, put on makeup or eat those delicious-smelling french fries. You need to watch the road in order to see potholes in the distance.
If you’re familiar with the roads you’re driving on, you probably know which ones have the worst potholes. Avoid those roads. Rather a slightly longer route on smooth roads is a better choice for your car’s health — and your wallet.
Drive at an appropriate speed for conditions — don’t speed, and do slow down if it’s rainy or foggy. Furthernore leave plenty of room between you and the car in front of you. Look straight ahead and see if any other cars are taking evasive action.
Be especially aware of puddles in the roadway during rainy weather. These can conceal potholes, both shallow and deep. In addition at night, if it’s safe, use your high beams to see farther down the road.
No sudden moves
If traffic is light, you might be able to maneuver around a pothole. But in medium to heavy traffic, it’s not a good idea. Furthermore be smooth and gradual with your steering when you try to avoid a pothole — don’t swerve or make sudden moves that can upset your vehicle’s balance. However you must also be aware of any oncoming traffic, cyclists or pedestrians in the area that would make these moves unwise.
Don’t slam the brakes
Sometimes, you have no choice but to hit a pothole. When this is the case, slow down ahead of the hazard, if possible. Also release the brakes before actually hitting it. Keep the tires pointed forward and grip the steering wheel firmly to keep your vehicle steady as you drive through the pothole.
In the event of a big hit, check for damage
If the impact feels serious, pull off the road in a safe place as soon as you can. Check your wheels and tires for any signs of damage. Shut off the engine and listen for the hiss of air escaping from a tire. If you have a flat tire, swap it for the spare or use your repair kit. Make sure nothing is hanging down from underneath the car.
If everything seems OK, continue driving at a slower pace, and listen for any noises or vibrations that weren’t there before. However, if you don’t feel comfortable continuing, call roadside assistance, your auto club or your mechanic.
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