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.
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.
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.