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Potholes: Causes and preventative measures

Potholes

While many of us have come across a pothole, we still ask questions like, what causes potholes; how do I avoid them once they appear; who should I report a pothole to for repair; or, if the vehicle is damaged by a pothole, can I recover the repair costs?

Causes
A pothole is caused by the failure of the road due to fatigue, or failure of the surface caused by age or overloading. The surface begins to crack and break up as vehicles continue to pound it, eventually forming a hole as chunks of the pavement are thrown out of the damaged area. Potholes are also created when the roadway is stressed by trucks and buses, which can cause a movement of the road’s subsurface resulting in surface failure. Water penetrating the failed pavement accelerates the process and further weakens the area which is why more potholes appear after it rains. Additionally, freezing weather accelerates the process since water expands when it changes to ice and breaks away even more of the surface.

Possible damage
Tiny potholes grow into larger ones that can damage your vehicle’s tires as they hit the edges of the hole and force the sidewall against the rim and damage it. Vehicle alignment can be knocked out of kilter and suspension parts can be damaged or broken when you hit a pothole hard enough. Some manufacturers warn that you can actually trigger your vehicle’s airbags if you hit a very large pothole with enough force. Please refer to your owner’s manual.

What can you do to avoid potholes or minimize the damage?
Simple everyday maintenance of your tires and safe driving habits will help you avoid or reduce the damage to your vehicle if you’re unable to avoid a pothole or have a jarring encounter with one.

  • Maintain proper air pressure in all tires to provide the proper cushion between the pothole and the rim of the tire. Don’t over-inflate your tires as this makes the tire too stiff and can make suspension damage from a pothole impact more likely.
  • Check your owner's manual or look at the placard on the driver’s door jam, inside the glove box door, or on the fuel filler door for the correct tire inflation pressure (don’t use the rating on the side of the tire as this is the maximum inflation pressure, not the manufacturer’s recommended pressure).
  • Watch for potholes by leaving plenty of space between your vehicle and the one in front of you. Before swerving to avoid a pothole, check surrounding traffic to determine if it is safe to change lanes.
  • Maintain a safe speed for the weather conditions. If you can’t avoid a pothole, slow down, if possible, and avoid braking directly over a pothole since that will shift weight forward and place additional loading on the front suspension and tires, increasing the potential for damage.
  • Hitting a pothole at high-speed increases the chance of damage to tires, wheels, and suspension components. High speed also increases the chance of losing control of your vehicle, especially if a series of potholes occurs on a curve or badly-weathered roadway. Keep a firm grip on the steering wheel to help maintain control.
  • Beware of, and avoid standing water that may conceal a deep pothole.

Motorists who suspect their vehicle may have been damaged by a pothole should take their vehicle to a qualified repair facility where it can be carefully inspected and serviced, if necessary.

Reporting potholes for repair
The person or parties responsible for maintaining the roads and highways can be a mix of city, county, and state responsibilities. When reporting a pothole, use your best judgment where to start. If it is on the street in front of your home, the city is likely the best place to start. If it’s a bigger roadway it may be a county road, or if it is clearly marked as a state route, it is the state’s responsibility. Look for the department of public works, street maintenance division, or municipal service agency, depending on your location. Please make the effort to report potholes as the car you save may be your own.

Filing a damage claim
Did you know that you may be able to recover the cost of damages caused by a pothole from the city, county, or state, depending on the circumstances?

If the unthinkable happens and you have damage to your vehicle as the result of a pothole, you can try filing a claim against the city, county, or state to recover the cost of repairs. Recovering your costs for damage is not a sure thing, since every jurisdiction has its own set of rules and claims procedures.

You will need to provide a repair bill, or at least two estimates, the location of the pothole, as well as the time and date of the incident. Include the police report if one was filed. Always send copies, so if the paperwork is lost or misdirected, you can make additional copies. And remember, time is of the essence.

Lastly, you need to determine who is responsible for the road. Some governments have online forms for you to fill out while others require a phone call. But, whatever agency is involved, you might want to go the route of the telephone so you can speak with someone to get the full story on what the rules are for your jurisdiction. Your position is stronger if you can prove the agency responsible knew about the existence of the pothole before you suffered a loss.

The condition of our nation’s highways
Visit TRIP, the road information program, a national transportation group, for additional information about the deteriorating conditions of our nation’s highways, infrastructure, and related issues. You can also search for information on a state-by-state basis which may help when you plan your next trip.

TRIP reports that the worst offenders for potholes are major metropolitan areas like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. TRIP estimates that 33 percent of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition. In March 2008, TRIP reported that despite some progress, California again topped the list of states with the worst roads.

These poor roads create additional operating costs from accelerated vehicle deterioration, additional maintenance needs, and increased fuel consumption. TRIP also reports that the increase in traffic, particularly commercial traffic, is putting significant wear and tear on urban roads all over the country, and that our level of road maintenance (which has been an easy target for budget-cutters during the recession) is not keeping up with the level of deterioration.

Although many of us may not have experienced vehicle damage directly from potholes, we are still feeling the overall effect of our deteriorating highways in the form of increased traffic congestion and its associated costs.