Beware the Dangerous Potholes Winter Has Left Behind

How to survive the rough roads this spring

Last updated: March 05, 2016 08:00 AM

Brutal winter cold wreaks havoc on our roads, creating crater-sized potholes that can cause expensive damage to your vehicle. A survey conducted by Trusted Choice and the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America found that half of car owners from 2009 to 2014 experienced vehicle damage due to potholes.

What kind of damage can a pothole do? Tires, wheels, and suspension are all at risk. A direct hit at speed can puncture a tire, requiring an immediate tire change and possibly a replacement. Even if the tire doesn't deflate, the sidewall could be damaged, rendering the tire useless. A pothole can bend the rim of the wheel, preventing it from seating properly against the bead of the tire. And bits of the suspension could be bent or damaged, requiring a wheel alignment at best and expensive replacement at worst.

The shape and depth of the hole and the speed at which you are driving all factor into the severity of potential damage, but there are other considerations, as well. Many cars, for example, now come with low-profile performance tires, which have shorter and stiffer sidewalls that can't flex and conform to a pothole edge as well as a taller and softer tire. As a result, performance tires are more prone to damage from potholes.

Should the worst happen and you experience pothole damage to your vehicle, your auto insurance may cover damage to hard parts of the car, but it won’t typically cover wear-and-tear items such as tires. According to the Trusted Choice survey, 31 percent of respondents who experienced pothole damage filed an insurance claim. The majority paid out of pocket for repairs. (See our car insurance buying guide.)

How to survive pothole-ravaged roads

1.     Slow down and pay attention to the road in front of you—but don't hyper-focus. Safe driving requires awareness of what is going on far ahead. Increase your following distance from the car ahead in order to give you more time to scan the road and react. Don't assume a pothole that looks small really is small; Deep potholes can fill up with water, concealing their true depth.

2.     Avoiding potholes is best, but if an impact is inevitable, slow down as much as possible before you hit. (Check your rearview mirror before slamming on your brakes.) If possible, drive straight through the pothole; turning into a pothole exposes the tire sidewall to potential damage.

3.     Pay attention to how your car drives after a pothole hit. If the car is shaking, shimmying, or pulling to one side, something may have been damaged. Stop the car and check for visible signs of tire and wheel damage. Keep in mind that if the front tire ran over the hole, the rear tire probably did as well—check both. Even if no damage is visible, it is possible the tire lost a balance weight, or that some part of the suspension has been damaged. If in doubt, have the car checked by a mechanic.

4.     Keeping your tires inflated to the recommended inflation pressure is one of the best ways to minimizing pothole damage to your tires and wheels. Under- or overinflated tires can affect a tires’ or wheel's resistance to pothole damage. Most cars now have a tire pressure monitoring system to alert the driver if a tire is losing air pressure. If your car does not have a tire pressure monitoring system, check the tire pressure when the tire has cooled to ambient temperature to be sure it’s not losing air from the pothole encounter.

5.     Help other motorists avoid damage by reporting potholes to your local municipality. Many major cities and states now have apps for sharing pothole locations.

See our tire buying advice and tire ratings.

Gene Petersen

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