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

Learn how potholes are formed and what you can do to prevent major damage to your car.

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. 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.

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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.”

pothole damage

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

Tell us your thoughts about potholes in the comments below.

  • 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

  • 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


    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


    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


    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.


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


    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!

  • AXEL G.

    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!

  • PAUL Z.

    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.

  • Rose J.

    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!

  • 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.


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