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. They may seem innocent enough, but AAA estimates pothole damage costs U.S. drivers $3 billion in vehicle repairs each year. So, it’s important to learn how potholes are formed, how to minimize their effect on your car and how to bounce back after you run over one.
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 displace. 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.
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.”
Preventing Pothole Damage
So, what do you do if you drive in the Northeast and potholes have formed all over the roadways?
Paul recommends scanning the roadway far in front of your vehicle to look for trouble. “At 40 miles per hour your vehicle is traveling at nearly 45 feet per second. If you are looking just in front of your vehicle you can’t compensate quickly enough to avoid the pothole.”
Once you do notice a pothole you have to make a decision based on your safety and that of the other drivers around you. If you can do it safely, steer to avoid the pothole. Don’t trade pothole damage with the chance of hitting another vehicle.
If you have no choice but hitting the pothole, slow down as quickly as possible and just before you roll into the pothole release the brakes. “This way the car suspension is not compressed, and the wheels won’t be locked up as you hit the pothole,” Paul said. “Hopefully you will roll through without damage.”
What to Do if There Is Pothole Damage
If you do notice a vibration, the steering wheel is off-centered, or the car just doesn’t feel right, go to a repair shop and have the car checked over. A slight vibration could be a damaged tire that could blow out, days, weeks or even months later.
If you did hit a pothole and damaged your vehicle, 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.
Learn more about AAA’s Tire & Wheel Protection Program.
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