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  • Writer's pictureJonnie Hendrickson

Your Guide To Potholes: Where They Come From, How They Damage Your Car & 6 Tips For Avoiding Them

pothole on city road

Potholes can cause extensive and expensive damage to your car that isn’t always obvious at first. The accidents that result in trying to avoid them can be serious, sometimes even fatal.

Potholes are no small thing.

Just ask Rainer Dixel, the 82 year-old-man who has spent the past three years of his retirement personally filling potholes in his suburb of Johannesburg. It's backbreaking labor for anyone, much less a man of 82.

Why does he do it?

“While I still can, I want to make a difference. Something as small as filling a pothole in the road cannot only make someone’s day, but it can also save lives.”

This spring, Winnipeg road crews are already hard at work "making days and saving lives". And they're giving Rainer a run for his money, patching up to 700 potholes daily.

Yet, thousands remain, and while it's easy to spot potholes with the snow gone, avoiding them is not always possible.

We’ve all been there.

You’re enjoying a pleasant drive when out of nowhere, your car jolts and dips dangerously toward the pavement. It's too late to swerve, and there's a minivan right beside you. Without any means of escape, you grip the wheel, grit your teeth, and hope for the best. The initial jarring blow is followed by an awful scraping sound, culminating in a final, violent pop. And then you are free of it.

But are you?

In 2021 alone, CAA reported that damaged and deteriorating road conditions, such as potholes cost Canadian drivers $3 billion in additional repair and operating costs.

Those costs can come months later when minor damage, left unrepaired, creates a significant problem.

What Causes Potholes?

Roads deteriorate over time due to age, weather, traffic volume, and lack of maintenance. In an extreme climate like ours, where temperatures radically fluctuate above and below zero degrees, this constant freeze-thaw cycle is responsible for the conditions that create potholes.

As moisture from rain or snow seeps through cracks and openings in the pavement, it freezes and expands, causing the pavement to heave upward. Then as temperatures rise, the ground underneath the pavement returns to its normal level, leaving a cavity that breaks apart as vehicles drive over the deformed pavement (CAA).

How Do You Know if a Pothole Has Caused Severe Damage to Your Vehicle?

The extent of damage depends on the speed you are traveling, the type of vehicle you drive, and the size and shape of the pothole. What might surprise you is that the damage usually occurs on the way out of the hole.

While flat tires, missing hubcaps, and cracked rims are apparent signs of damage, the reality is that any pothole collision can cause severe and system-wide problems that often can’t be seen from the surface. The safest bet is to have your vehicle inspected as soon as possible.

Why Potholes Are Bad for Your Car

mechanic working car tire

Damage to Tires, Wheels & Rims

Your tires and wheels are your first line of defense against potholes. And they take a beating doing their job. Punctures and tears in your tire will result in a flat. Potholes can also damage the tire sidewall, creating a bulge or loss of integrity in your tire’s shape. Tire treads can also become separated after impact. Both issues will cause premature, uneven tire wear and affect your fuel economy.

When tires lose wall integrity and begin to bulge, they become less efficient at absorbing the shock of a big impact. The force of a pothole collision is now transferred more fully to your wheels and rims. This is where things start to get expensive.

The average tire replacement cost ranges from about $150-$300. The cost to replace cracked wheels and bent rims increases substantially, with the average price between $400-$1200.

We recommend having your tires inspected immediately after a pothole impact to avoid the high cost of any damage to your wheels and rims.

Damage to Suspension & Steering

mechanic working with car on a lift

Hitting potholes at high speeds, especially deep ones, risks damage to your suspension and steering system. The suspension system includes force-dampening or shock-absorbing parts such as:

  • springs

  • wheel bearings

  • ball joints

  • struts

Your vehicle's steering system includes:

  • suspension and control arms

  • tie rods

  • sway bars that link your wheels to each other and to your vehicle.

The linkages of your steering system control how your vehicle handles. The force-related parts of your suspension system determine the quality of your drive.

In such a complex system, each part has a specific, complementary role. For example, ball joints transfer force, while wheel bearings absorb force. If one is damaged, the other is exposed to forces beyond its design and capability.

Damage to force-dampening parts, like shocks or struts, will cause noticeable, unusual vibrations as you drive. A rough, bumpy ride over and above what you are used to is a sign something has gone wrong with your suspension.

If you feel like your car is leaning or pulling to one side or your steering is unresponsive, this likely indicates damage to your steering system.

After a pothole incident, when parked, take a moment to inspect your alignment. If your wheels are straight, but your steering wheel is not, the impact has damaged your car's front end.

Even slight differences in the quality of your drive and the responsiveness of your steering are worth visiting a mechanic near you.

For example, if a damaged tie rod fails while driving, your tire will flop to one side, resulting in a total loss of steering and a potentially catastrophic collision.

Damage to the Exhaust System

The exhaust system is another area that is particularly vulnerable to pothole damage. Deep potholes can scrape your car's undercarriage and damage your exhaust pipe, muffler, and catalytic converter. Holes and dents in any part of the exhaust system can result in your vehicle expelling harmful pollution or venting toxic gases into your car.

Potent, unpleasant smells or noticeably louder sounds during vehicle operation are signs of potential damage to your exhaust system.

6 Tips to Avoid Potholes & Prevent Damage:

1. MPI stresses motorists should scan for potholes 10-12 seconds down the road.

When it comes to driver safety, distances are always expressed in time instead of physical increments. Follow this link to learn more about how the seconds you save following these guidelines could be the difference between an emergency and a close call.

2. Maintain a 3-second gap from the car ahead of you.

This time increment, like the one above, is based on average human reaction speed and could save you a whole lot of trouble.

3. Slow down and adjust your driving to the weather and road conditions.

In wet or icy conditions, the stopping distance (a product of thinking time + actual braking time + road conditions) is double that of dry conditions. For example:

  • At 80 km/h in dry conditions = 53 metres to come to full stop.

  • At 80 km/h in wet conditions = 106 metres (minimum) for a full stop.

4. Ensure your tires are always properly inflated, they are your first defense.

mechanic inflating tire

Under-inflated, over-inflated, or bulging tires are all far less efficient at absorbing pothole collisions. Check your tire pressure every week, especially in the days following a pothole impact.

5. Avoid puddles at all costs. They hide dangerous secrets!

Ask yourself, why would water be pooling in the middle of a roadway? There is no way to tell the difference between an innocent low spot and a hidden crater until you've hit it.

6. If you can’t avoid a pothole, do not slam on the brakes!

Take your foot off the gas and hold your steering wheel as tightly as possible to prevent involuntary swerving. Continue driving in a straight line so as not to endanger other drivers. Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to file an insurance claim if a pothole was unavoidable and you can prove you took every safety measure possible before hitting it.

Drive carefully, always be on the lookout for potholes and puddles, and be aware of the most common signs and sounds that indicate serious damage to your vehicle. Above all, don't wait to get your vehicle checked out.

Super Lube manager answering phone

We hope you don't hit any potholes this season - but if you do, you're welcome to visit any of our five locations!

Call in, drop in, or book with us online, anytime.

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