How can I Tell if my Car Has Pothole Damage?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

As roadways freeze and thaw, water erodes some of the dirt beneath them. If the asphalt layer over these holes falls or cracks, the result is a crater called a pothole. Drivers who cannot see or avoid these hazards often suffer some form of damage to their cars. This may be instantaneous, such as a punctured tire, or cumulative, such as misalignments of the steering system. Pothole damage accounts for nearly 500,000 insurance claims per year, so experts suggest looking for problems immediately following an encounter with a pothole.

Potholes account for thousands of dollars worth of insurance claims per year.
Potholes account for thousands of dollars worth of insurance claims per year.

Tires are common victims of pothole damage, so a driver should take time to perform an inspection of both the rims and the tires. Look for signs of bulging in the sidewall area of the tire, which could easily be caused by a pothole, since the tires experience sudden jolts at the time of impact. The rims of many modern cars are aluminum-based, which means they cannot withstand as much force as older steel rims. Inspecting the rims may involve making an appointment with a local tire service.

Potholes can puncture tires.
Potholes can puncture tires.

Other signs of damage from a pothole are dents, leaks and rusting. Striking a deep one can cause dents to form around the wheels and undercarriage. If the rustproofing is compromised, rust may begin to form around the damaged areas. If a car begins leaking fluids, it may be a result of damage to the undercarriage or engine mounting area.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of a problem caused by a pothole occurs in the car's alignment and shock absorption systems. A car's suspension system is designed to provide a smoother ride for the driver, primarily by allowing the tires and struts to bounce up and down. When the tire strikes a hole in the road, especially at highway speeds, the entire shock absorption system receives an immediate jolt. Over time, the shock absorbing springs and struts become less resilient, leading to a much rougher ride and less responsive steering.

In order to assess damage to a car's suspension and shock absorption systems, ask yourself some questions about the car's behavior. Do you feel a significant amount of swaying whenever you make routine turns? Does the car dive down during braking? Does the car sink in the back when accelerating from a dead stop? Does the car "bottom out" on city streets or bounce excessively on rough roads? All of these symptoms could point to a suspension problem.

In a similar vein, the car's alignment may also be severely affected after months of continuous pothole damage. An alignment problem often gives the driver a sense of wrestling with the steering wheel, since a misaligned car may want to pull to one direction instead of maintaining a straight path. Proper wheel alignment is important for a number of reasons, including the lifespan of the tires and safer handling during emergency maneuvers. A local tire repair shop or mechanic should be able to check the alignment during a scheduled tire rotation.

The problem many drivers face after hitting a pothole is liability and reimbursement for repairs. Some cities assume responsibility for damage caused on their streets, but a significant number of local governments do not. Most insurance companies will recognize an immediate claim, but much of the damage caused by potholes is cumulative. It's in a city's best interest to provide a temporary or permanent fix to all road damage, but the responsibility for avoiding a pothole — and the subsequent damage — generally falls on the individual driver.

Tire inspection may reveal damage from a pothole, such as a bulging tire sidewall or bent rims.
Tire inspection may reveal damage from a pothole, such as a bulging tire sidewall or bent rims.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Well my mom is a paper carrier in a rural area in Mississippi, so she encounters potholes all the time. Well yesterday, we hit a big one and the whole passenger side shock mount and shock broke during the impact. I contacted the county to see if they are going to repair the damage.


Wow, I knew potholes weren't a good thing to hit, but I didn't realize how much vehicle damage could occur because of them.

I always figured that if I hit one and my tire didn't blow I was fine!


I had a vehicle that had several of these problems. It was a mini-van and it would bottom out all the time. I have friends that I would visit and I would avoid parking in their driveway, because I would bottom out every time I left. It didn't happen to anyone else though.

The van also swayed really bad when I would turn. I thought it was just old and falling apart, but I live in an area that gets a lot of really bad potholes every winter. I've definitely hit quite a few of them, so maybe that's what caused these problems on my van.

I have a different van now, and I'll be sure to pay more attention to damage that could result from potholes. And, more importantly, I'll try better to avoid the potholes in the first place!


I just purchased wonderful tires and had my best alignment ever at Firestone. I was really happy and my truck was driving great! Then it happened. I hit a 4 pot hole sequence of 3" deep ones right near my home. I reported it to my city and they gave me a case number but why have these holes been there for months? What is the labor and material cost for some tar in a hole. About $20 for the city to fork out and 5 minutes of work? I am sure someone is paid to notice these things and I live in a high traffic area. If they can't take care of the roads in a nice area then I suggest getting rid of the ones looking for these holes and get good legal representatives.

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