Potholes cost drivers $3 billion each year? Here’s how they form and why they’re so damaging

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Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

The dangers of winter driving are well known, but the season of ice and snow delivers more than just slippery roads and salt to rust your car away. The same ice that cracks your windshield also destroys the roads you use every day. When the snow melts, you’re left with gaping craters of destruction perfectly designed to damage your car and cost you big money. But you can minimize the dangers of potholes with a little common sense.

According to AAA, potholes have cost U.S. drivers $15 billion during the past five years, which adds up to about $3 billion annually.

Frequently, a pothole-damaged tire will have a bulge in the sidewall.

We spent some time with an expert to dive deeper into the damage done by potholes, and to find out how you can minimize those dangers. Abilio Toledo is an Area Manager for Bridgestone, and understanding tire and suspension damage is his business.

“With the harsh winters and the current infrastructure in most cities, potholes are going to be prevalent,” Toledo told Digital Trends. “Especially in extreme cold areas that get snow and ice on the roads.”

Right about now, you’re thinking, “tell me something I don’t know.” So let’s look a little more closely at what’s going on.

Anatomy of a pothole

Ice can destroy a road in the same way it breaks your windshield. Water flows into tiny rock chips in your glass and then expands as it freezes, pushing the two sides apart. On the other side, your windshield contracts as the temperature drops. The combined action breaks the glass.

The roadway is just the same. Water gets into cracks in the road surface and then freezes, disintegrating the asphalt. Once a piece of road has been turned into a hole filled with rubble, tires pick up the pieces and throw them at the next car down the line, perpetuating the cycle of windshield damage and digging the pothole even deeper. When the hole is deep enough for you to notice it, it’s generally deep enough to damage your car if you drive over it.

Hitting a pothole in slow motion

Toledo also told us what happens in the fraction of a second when your car hits a pothole.

“On a smooth road surface, the tire is rolling along and it’s in contact with the road,” Toledo explained. “There is an oscillation happening, but you don’t feel it because the strut or shock absorber is damping the vibration and keeping the tire in contact with the surface of the road.”

When the snow melts, you’re left with gaping craters of destruction perfectly designed to damage your car.

“When you go into a pothole the strut fully extends, pushing your tire into the pothole. That is not a normal driving condition for a strut. Then the whole brunt and weight of the impact comes down and the strut is not designed for that, and it gets damaged. At that point it’s not absorbing impact, it’s just passing the impact down and the damage will occur either to the tire or the rim,” Toledo said.

To make matters worse, modern tire designs aren’t as forgiving of potholes as they used to be.

“Most vehicles today have lower profile tires, so there’s less absorption in the sidewall,” Toledo pointed out. “So the rim will take the damage; you’ll crack the rim. Some tires have reinforced sidewalls and may not absorb the impact. Run-flat tires, for example, have strong sidewalls so you can drive on them without any air pressure. They are designed to get you where you’re going or to the repair facility.”

How to spot pothole damage

If you have been unlucky enough to hit a pothole (and that’s pretty much all of us), how can you tell if your car was damaged?

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Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

“If it’s a catastrophic failure, you’ll feel it immediately,” Toledo said. “The car will pull to one side or start to wobble. But I’ve seen very few catastrophic failures to a vehicle. In extreme cases, there can be damage to the strut towers, and then the vehicle is not repairable. Pothole damage can mean you have to replace tires, wheels, struts, and steering and suspension components, so it can be very expensive.”

But not all pothole damage is immediately apparent. Sometimes it’s more subtle, breaking down the structural integrity of your wheels and tires, leading to a flat tire later or knocking your suspension and steering out of alignment.

Keep a safe distance from cars ahead so you can see the road, and try to memorize where the potholes are.

“Long term effects on fuel efficiency, long term effects on your tires, and on the safety and stopping distance of the vehicle are all affected by alignment, even if you don’t feel the damage immediately,” Toledo said.

Frequently, a pothole-damaged tire will have a bulge in the sidewall. If you see a bulge or blister, you need to go to a tire center and replace that tire immediately. It could blow out at any time.

But perhaps the most insidious thing about a pothole-damaged tire is that you can’t always see what has happened.

“Often the damage is invisible,” Toledo told Digital Trends. “The tire will snap the inner lining. It still holds air but there’s a bubble. If it doesn’t blow out, the tire is still compromised and can blow out at any moment. So you think you made it through the pothole and you’re okay, but you didn’t. The best thing to do is have your car checked out. You want the vehicle to be roadworthy.”

And how to avoid potholes altogether

Now that we’ve covered all the bad stuff that might happen, how can you avoid spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars to fix unnecessary damage? Not hitting the holes you know about is step one.

“People mostly travel the same roads, because most driving happens going to and from work,” Toledo reminded us. “So the first thing is to know your roads. Plus, keep a safe distance from cars ahead so you can see the road, and try to memorize where the potholes are. If you drive the same roads day in and day you, you’ve got to know the potholes you’ve already seen.”

You can also make sure you minimize your exposure to holes you can’t see in advance.

“The best you can do is to have your vehicle ready for these driving conditions,” said Toledo. “The most important thing is to make sure the air pressure in your tires is properly set. It helps absorb some of the impact. Then the quality of your tires is very important, and you have to have the right tires for the season and appropriate for the vehicle.”

That means winter tires in winter, and tires of your car’s recommended size in the other seasons. I know low profile tires look great, and if you live in a place where you don’t get potholes, that’s fine. If you do want low profile tires, just be sure to keep them inflated properly.

“As hard as it seems, just try to avoid them and have your vehicle prepared,” said Toledo

Getting potholes fixed

Ultimately, the resolution you want is to get potholes fixed. Some good old-fashioned squeaky wheel action will help. Don’t be afraid to call your city, county, and state road departments and tell them about potholes that plague you. Be sure to note the street and block where they’re located. Get your neighbors, friends, and co-workers to do it, too. You can move your potholes up the priority list with a few phone calls and emails.