How Do Potholes Form? And What Damage Can They Cause?

How do potholes form? Learn how car-eating craters are formed and what you can do to prevent major damage to your vehicle.
how do potholes form

The dreaded pothole has plagued drivers for seemingly as long as paved roads came into existence. And if you are driving around the Northeast, you are guaranteed to encounter more than your fair share. A new survey from AAA found that last year 1 in 10 drivers sustained vehicle damage significant enough to warrant a repair after hitting a pothole. With an average price tag of almost $600 per repair, damage caused by potholes cost drivers a staggering $26.5 billion in 2021 alone.

To make matters worse, these same drivers often ended up with an average of two pothole-related repairs signaling that America’s roadways need immediate attention. As states receive an influx of funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, AAA urges government officials and departments of transportation to focus on improving road conditions, prioritizing those areas most in need of repair.

“In many parts of the country, winter roads will likely give way to pothole-laden obstacle courses,” said Mary Maguire, Director of Public/Government Affairs for AAA Northeast. “When a vehicle hits a pothole with any kind of force, the tires, wheels and suspension get the brunt of the impact and fixing any of those items is pricey.”

How Do Potholes Form?

Potholes are created when groundwater seeps into the ground underneath the pavement. If the water freezes, it will expand, thus causing the pavement to expand, bend and crack. When the ice melts, gaps or voids are left in the surface under the pavement. As this process is repeated, the pavement continues to weaken.

When cars begin to drive over this weakened surface, the weight continues to break down the pavement to the point where pieces of the roadway will come loose and be displaced. Once this happens, you have a pothole. “In addition,” said AAA’s Car Doctor John Paul, “the pothole can fill with water again, refreeze and break off more asphalt and the pothole become a car eating crater.”

Because potholes are dependent on water freezing, they often form during the winter. However, it isn’t until all the ice and snow recedes from the roadways that the potholes are noticeable and able to wreak havoc. Therefore, spring is often the time of year when potholes are more common.

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Pothole Damage

The damage from driving over a pothole can be as minor as knocking a car out of alignment. This can usually be corrected with a trip to a repair shop for a wheel alignment.

However, in other cases the damage can be much worse. Wheels and tires can become damaged, many times to the extent that they are unusable. A pothole can puncture your tire and leave you with a flat and in need of roadside assistance. And it may not be just one tire – it could be both tires on the side of the vehicle where you encountered the pothole. It can also cause your rims to dent or bend.

Although this is not ideal, these problems can be fixed. And if you’re a AAA member, you’re in even better luck. All members are eligible for AAA’s Tire & Wheel Protection Program. This package allows for unlimited repairs or replacements for tires and/or wheels due to impact with road hazards such as potholes. It includes cosmetic, curb and sidewall damage.

Damage to your tire or wheel is usually easily noticeable. But even if you don’t see obvious damage, you may still want to get your car checked by a professional mechanic. Driving over a deep pothole, especially at a high speed, can do serious damage to your vehicle. Steering and suspension parts can also be damaged, causing severe handling issues and rapid tire wear.

“In what I would call the worst case,” Paul said, “part of the drivetrain (engine and transmission) can suffer enough damage the component loses oil and fails completely, requiring a complete rebuild or replacement.” The damage may be covered by your car insurance. In addition, you could try putting in a claim with the municipality that is responsible for the roadway.

Schedule an appointment with a AAA Insurance agent to discuss your coverage options.

How to Prevent Pothole Damage

While potholes are a reality for many drivers, sustaining vehicle damage does not have to be. AAA recommends the following:

  • Check your tires, which includes tread depth, tire pressure, suspension and alignment.
    • Tread depth – Insert a quarter into the tread groove with Washington’s head upside down. If you can see the top of Washington’s head, start shopping for new tires.
    • Tire pressure – Check this at least once a month using a quality gauge. Do so before driving when tires have been at rest and are not hot. Follow the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended inflation pressure found on a sticker inside the driver’s side door.
    • Suspension and alignment – Look for changes in vehicle handling, excessive vibration or uneven wearing of tires, all indications of a problem with the suspension like alignment or shocks. If your vehicle pulls to the left or right, have the wheel alignment checked by a trusted mechanic.
  • Keep your eyes on the road. An alert and cautious driver is less likely to hit a pothole.
    • Scan the road ahead for potholes and if it’s safe to do so, drive around any in your path.
    • Standing water or puddles may disguise a deep pothole. Avoid driving through standing water when possible but if you can’t, drive through slowly and treat them as though there may be potholes hiding beneath the water.
    • There may be times when you cannot avoid hitting a pothole. In that case, safely reduce your speed as much as possible and avoid braking abruptly, particularly as you go over the pothole as this compresses your suspension and adds extra force to the tire. Striking a pothole at higher speeds increases the chance of severe damage including knocking the wheels out of alignment, affecting the steering, and bending or even breaking suspension components.
    • If you hit a pothole, pay attention to any new or unusual noises or vibrations. If you detect something is off with your vehicle, take it to a trusted repair facility for a full vehicle inspection as soon as possible. You can also consider purchasing wheel and tire protection for your vehicle for additional security and savings.

Learn more about AAA’s Tire & Wheel Protection Program

Tell us your thoughts about potholes in the comments below.

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13 Thoughts on “How Do Potholes Form? And What Damage Can They Cause?

  1. Gas tax is supposedly to be used to fix the roads. With all the gas that is sold I’d like to know who’s pocket that money is going into. I live in the Northeast and there are plenty of potholes some roads are so bad you can’t avoid them. Bridge tunnel and highway tolls are suppose to be used to fix those things they are not. The major problem is there is no recourse when your vehicle is damaged.

  2. One overlooked mechanism for pothole initiation and expansion is Hydrofracking. Your 1.5 to 2 ton car will squeeze water into cracks in the pavement with enough force to raise existing water pressure to propagate subsurface fractures, and subsequent cars and trucks will continue to enlarge the damage.

  3. I blame, for the northeastern part , mostly the snow plows! I can hear them during the night how they slam down the snow removal equipment, and can even hear scraping the pavement. Such force contributes already to a week asphalt on the pavement. When they come around (whenever) they do such bad job that leaves a bump on the road. I blame the governing body that has no supervision!

  4. Hit a massive pothole in Brooklyn while it was raining. Filed a claim, and because no one reported it prior, out of luck. Back and forth to no avail….$3000 worth of damage on my 740il

    If municipalities were held accountable, potholes would be repaired alot quicker. All these municipalities have a clause that shield them from paying out during winter months.

  5. I agree the States should be hold liable for pothole damages especially in New Jersey since they added 30 cents per gallon for road repair.
    I could not escape a big pothole (crater – deep and wide) on I-80 centerlane by road maker 33 and blow out my front tire. So many cars pulled in the truck rest area with damages to their car. It would be great if AAA would speak out and lobby in behalf of their members to make the States pay for the damages since AAA has a very powerful voice!

  6. 5 years ago, a pothole split a seam in my radiator causing over $1,000 in repairs (new radiator, water pump, & timing belt) as I didn’t notice for a few days. I did document the potholes and had my mechanic attest to the damage. I submitted this to NYS DOT and was reimbursed!

  7. 40 MPH is just short of 59 feet per second, not “nearly 45 feet per second.” A handy reference is 30 MPH=44 FPS.

  8. What about potholes in warmer climates? How do they form? I spend a great deal of time in the USVI and there are oodles of potholes there. The road never freezes down there.

  9. Except in NYS where we have a governor that has no regard for the driving public.
    There is a State law that they are exempt from any pothole claims for the period of October thru April.
    The NYS roads on Long Islabc are tgdd Ed worst in the country

  10. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just vetoed my legislation to make NYS liable for damages due to road defects all year. He vetoed my legislation passed by both legislative houses to remove NYS immunity from liability for damages due to road defects from Nov 15 to May 15. NY law makes all local governments liable all year round but exempts the state during pothole season. By his veto, the Governor is admitting his departments can not meet their responsibility to keep state roads safe and he does not want to be held accountable. Motorists should complain to Governor Cuomo that responsibility for state’s negligence should not be shifted to motorists for state roads ranked among the worst in the country. NYS Assemblymember Tom Abinanti

  11. I always ask myself when AAA is going to take action against the potholes PROBLEM which is so costly. In NEW York for example where l live ;it is SIMPLY a terrible SHAME and surreal to see the numbers of craters in the streets. Mechanics in New York CITY must be the richest AROUND this country. Please help us keep our sanity by saving some money in car repair……AP

  12. To whom it may concern ,you left out one very important factor there’s just not cars and trucks on the road what if a motorcycle hits a pothole and even worse if it’s that night and you can’t see it I can go on and on about the dangers of hitting a pothole with motorcycles but I’m sure you folks know exactly what I’m talking about sincerely Steve Chauvette from the Rhode island Motorcycle Association

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