(Carfax) -Welcome to spring! The snow melts, the ice disappears … we take off our winter tires, put away our parkas… it’s a wonderful season! But while spring may mean April showers and May flowers, it is also a frustrating time of year for drivers – pothole season! As vehicle owners, we groan when we think about hitting one of those nasty suckers, and cringe to think about the vehicle damage from potholes that can result.
What is a pothole and how does it form?
Very simply, a pothole is any area in a road’s surface that has cracked and formed a hole. These gaps can be tiny and hardly noticeable, or they can be large enough to cause serious pothole damage to cars.
Fresh, smooth pavement is a pleasure to drive on, but unfortunately it doesn’t last forever. Traffic means tires creating friction with the pavement, heating it up and causing it to expand. It then contracts as the temperature cools, and this constant expansion/contraction cycle causes cracks to form. Eventually, water will seep into and under these cracks, and when the weather gets cold, that water freezes, causing the cracks to grow and pushing up against the pavement from below. The ice melts when it gets warmer, which causes even larger cracks, leaving more room for water to seep in. The cycle continues until we see the massive potholes that are so common in the spring.
The good news is that fixing potholes is easy, and many municipalities have reporting systems set up for you to let them know about potholes so they can send out a crew to fill them in.
Vehicle damage from potholes
According to the American Automobile Association, 16 million drivers in the United States suffered vehicle damage from potholes between from 2011-2016. The most common forms of pothole damage to cars are tire punctures, bent wheels and damaged suspensions. Tire punctures are often (but not always) fixable, but driving on a punctured tire is not safe. If the puncture is in the tread you can likely have it repaired, but if it’s in the sidewall there’s a good chance you’re out of luck. Bent wheels can impact the seal between the tire and rim — leading to leaks and even a flat tire. Any of this damage can also impact handling, steering and brake performance. Damaged suspension impacts the vehicle’s steering abilities and make it more difficult for the car to absorb shock.
Hitting just one pothole can knock your vehicle out of alignment, which makes it difficult to steer and causes irregular tire wear, meaning you could need to replace your tires earlier than otherwise necessary.
Potholes can also damage your undercarriage (which should be fixed immediately) and throw off your tire balance and alignment very easily, which will impact your car’s performance and cause premature wear-and-tear to your tires.
How to avoid pothole damage to car
The best way to avoid pothole damage to your car is to avoid the pothole altogether. Not helpful, we know. Sometimes potholes are unavoidable. In that case, here are a few tips to help you minimize vehicle damage from potholes.
If the pothole is unavoidable, slow down as much as possible before you hit it, and release the brakes at the last possible moment. Braking shifts the weight of the vehicle forward, making your car heavier in the front, so hitting the brakes when you’re in the pothole will make the impact worse and cause more damage.
Be careful when you’re driving in heavy rain and avoid deep puddles whenever possible – you never know if there’s a massive pothole underneath.
Proper vehicle maintenance – there are lots of things you can do to keep your vehicle properly maintained (here’s a handy list), but in terms of pothole damage – focus on your tires.
Tires that are properly inflated can handle the impact of a pothole much better than over or under inflated tires. Learn to check your tire pressure here.
Have your alignment checked regularly, and consider having your tires re-aligned twice a year. It’s easy and convenient to do it when you’re switching over your winter/summer/all-season tires.