Originally published on Your AAA Network.

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 recent AAA survey found that 1 in 10 drivers sustained vehicle damage significant enough to warrant a repair after hitting a pothole in 2021. With an average price tag of almost $600 per repair, damage caused by potholes cost drivers a staggering $26.5 billion in just one calendar year.

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, Vice President 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.

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.

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.

Damage to your tire or wheel is usually easily noticeable. But even if it’s not obvious, you may still want to get your car checked by a professional mechanic. Driving over a deep pothole, especially at a high speed, can seriously harm 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.

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

  • Tread depth – Insert a quarter upside down into the tread groove. 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 the 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

  • 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.

Have any more questions about potholes? Ask AAA’s Car Doctor.