A mud-splashed tire in a pothole.

Winter cold wreaks havoc on our roads, as water freezes and expands under pavement, creating cracks and sometimes crater-sized potholes that can cause expensive damage to your vehicle.

Tires, wheels, and suspension are all at risk. Past research by AAA found that pothole damage costs motorists about $3 billion a year total, with repairs averaging $300 per incident.

A direct hit at speed can ruin a tire, requiring an immediate tire change and likely replacement. Even if the tire doesn't deflate, the sidewall could be damaged, making the tire dangerous and potentially rendering it useless.

And unlike a nail-type puncture, a flat caused by a pothole can’t be temporarily fixed with a tire sealant kit. This underscores the value of having a spare tire onboard, even if it is a small, space-saver tire. Without a spare, a flat from a pothole means calling a tow truck.

But tires aren’t the only things that can be hurt by hard strike. A pothole can bend or break 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 parts 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.

MORE ON TIRES

Many cars, for example, now come with low-profile performance tires, which have short, stiff sidewalls that can't flex and conform to a pothole edge as well as a taller, softer tire. As a result, such performance tires are more prone to damage from potholes. (This is something for car shoppers in the snowbelt to keep in mind.)

Should 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. However, tire protection is often offered for a low fee, and sometimes included, when buying replacement tires.

Such protections and other free perks can sway you to purchase from one retailer over another, but be sure you understand the restrictions before putting much weight on this benefit. Typically, the customer still has to pay for mounting, balancing, and disposal. That said, a road hazard warranty can be good protection, especially if you live in a pothole-plagued area and/or have expensive, short-sidewall tires. 

Ultimately, the best protection against pothole damage is awareness, followed by speed moderation, a spare tire, and road hazard protection.

But there is one more trick: Run-flat tires are a good hedge against pothole damage. If one loses air pressure, you can safely drive for about 50 miles—plenty of distance to seek assistance on most routes. However, run-flats tend to ride stiffly, and because they are less common, finding a matching replacement tire while traveling can be a challenge.

How to Survive Pothole-Ravaged Roads

  1. Situational awareness: Slow down and scan road conditions in front of you. Safe driving requires awareness of what is going on far ahead and of traffic around your car. Increase your following distance from the car ahead so that you can see the road and have time to react to a pothole. Don't assume a small-looking pothole doesn’t pose a threat: Deep potholes can fill up with water, concealing their true depth.
  2. Speed bump: Avoiding potholes is obviously ideal, but if an impact is inevitable, slow down as much as possible before you hit it. (Check your rearview mirror before slamming on your brakes.)
  3. Stay straight: Don’t swerve out of your lane without checking all mirrors. In traffic, there likely won’t be time for this. If you must react quickly, try to straddle the pothole if possible without shifting lanes. If you must, drive straight through the pothole; a late swerve that results in turning within a pothole exposes the tire sidewall to potential damage. Tapping the brake pedal enough to flash your lights can alert the cars behind you.
  4. The real impact: If you thud through a pothole, pay attention to how your car drives immediately after. Something may be damaged if the car is shaking, shimmying, or pulling to one side. Air loss due to a blistered sidewall or other tire issue may take time to manifest. With any signs of a problem, pull over to a safe (ideally flat) location to 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 tire damage is visible, it is possible the wheel lost a balance weight or that some part of the suspension has been damaged. If in doubt, have the car checked by a mechanic.
  5. Preventive medicine: Keeping your tires inflated to the recommended inflation pressure is one of the best ways to minimize pothole damage to your tires and wheels. Under- or overinflated tires can affect a tire or wheel's resistance to pothole damage. Modern cars 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.
  6. Pay it forward: Help other motorists avoid damage by reporting potholes to your local municipality. Many major cities and states now have apps for sharing pothole locations.