What happens when you hit a pothole? A Sudbury expert talks

Tips for avoiding potholes, how they affect vehicles, and what to do if you hit one

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Justin Pritchard

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Whether immediately or later on, whacking a giant road crater can really muck up your day — and your bank account.

Pothole season has arrived across the country. Reporting from Sudbury, I can confirm a familiar story: our roads and highways are disintegrating beneath us like dollar-store toilet paper, and motorists are paying the price.

Potholes come in many shapes and sizes, and hitting the wrong one the wrong way can cause catastrophic damage to your car or truck. As an added bonus, current global supply chain issues may wreak havoc with tire and parts availability, adding further frustration to the mix.

Below, let’s cover some pothole basics including the types of damage they cause, the consequences of not taking that damage seriously, and some common terms and part names that’ll come in handy if you’re headed to the shop after losing a battle with a tooth-rattling pavement chasm.

How potholes harm your ride

The sort of damage your car can suffer from a pothole strike is wide-reaching.

In some cases, a pothole strike will bend or break a wheel rim, split or puncture a tire causing outright failure, and/or cause collateral damage to other parts related to your car’s steering, suspension, and perhaps especially front-end.

Sometimes, when you hit the sort of pothole that’d make your grandmother curse, you’ll lose a tire or wheel straight away. Other times, damage may be inflicted that surfaces later on, such as damage to a tire’s inner sidewall that weakens that tire and leaves it vulnerable to a dangerous blow-out in a subsequent strike.

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Pothole strikes can hurt your vehicle’s alignment, too. When the alignment is out of whack, your car’s steering may perform poorly, and it’ll probably handle like a piece of soggy toast.

What is an alignment?

Having an alignment performed on your car is like getting an adjustment at the chiropractor. The goal is to ensure an optimal physical arrangement of wheels and vital suspension parts.

Keeping your back healthy is important, and keeping your car’s alignment heathy is important, too. When your car’s alignment is off, it’ll handle poorly, wear out its tires more quickly, waste fuel needlessly, cost you more money to operate, and be less enjoyable to drive.

When a professional gives your car an alignment, they’re making precise physical adjustments to steering and suspension components beneath your vehicle, with the goal of restoring the physical geometry of your car’s suspension and steering system back to factory settings. This affects how the tires conta
ct the road, and ultimately the handling, safety, comfort, and efficiency of the vehicle.

What is a tire balance?

A tire balance is different than an alignment.

With an alignment, your vehicle’s suspension geometry is set to an optimal configuration that ensures your tires contact the road just right.

With a tire balance, the work performed involves making sure the wheels roll down the road smoothly, free from unwanted vibrations.

If you’ve ever heard your washing machine thumping itself to pieces from the laundry room while trying to spin-dry a single, heavy item, you’re familiar with why tires and wheels may require balancing: uneven weight distribution. In the laundry room, unwanted washer vibrations are fixed by rearranging your soggy comforter so your Maytag spins away more smoothly.

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On your car, correcting imbalance requires wheels and tires to be mounted on a special machine that detects and measures vibrations. Technicians can add small counterweights at strategic parts of the wheel to offset these vibrations, ensuring your newly installed tires roll down the road in silky-smooth fashion — hopefully, not straight into another pothole.

Often, alignments and wheel balancing are done at the same time. Note that a tire rotation is a completely different procedure, in which your vehicle’s tires and wheels are swapped into different corners of the car, to help evenly distribute wear.

They’re easy to mix up, but tires aren’t wheels, and wheels aren’t tires. Tires are made of rubber, and wrap around the car’s wheels, which are made of metal. Potholes can cause damage to tires, wheels, or both.

Check your spare

If potholes are rapidly spreading in your locale, be sure your spare tire situation is properly sorted to avoid unpleasant surprises. After all, nothing ruins a Sunday drive more than finding out you’ve got a flat spare or a defective tire inflator kit after a game of ‘Puddle or Pothole?’ turns one of your wheels into an octagon.

Whatever spare tire provisions are included in your ride, you’ll want to make sure they’re tip-top and ready to go before you need them.

What to do and what to expect after a pothole strike

Since potholes can cause immediate problems, or surprise issues later on, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of trouble and damage during and after pothole season.

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Inspect your tires regularly, on both inner and outer sidewall surfaces, for signs of gouges, lumps or other damage. Anything unusual should be inspected professionally if detected.

Monitor tire inflation pressure regularly, as even a slow leak may be a sign of a hairline crack in your wheel rim. This also benefits everyday efficiency and handling.

Pay attention to the way your car feels and sounds, remembering that if anything seems off, it probably is. If in doubt, get that car checked out by a professional.

I asked some experts at OK Tire to tell me about the most commonly reported signs and symptoms of pothole-related damage, among customers arriving for pothole damage.

According to OK Tire, these customers typically report unusual vibrations or sounds, poor handling, bent rims, cracked rims (which can invite pressure loss or blowouts), structural tire damage and torn sidewalls, and broken or damaged components like ball joints, struts, and shocks.

What are ball joints? Struts? Shocks? Bushings?

A ball joint is like a human hip-joint: basically, a ball-in-socket style joint that allows the parts connected to it to move, bend, and pivot against one another. If you live in a pothole-riddled town or city, your car’s ball joints take quite a beating, and will eventually wear out and require replacement.

Sometimes, ball joints are built into other larger suspension components. Other times, they can be changed on their own.

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Like an achy hip, ball joints often provide advanced warning of trouble. This usually presents as a knocking, clunking, or tapping sound as you drive down the road.

Ever see a car pulled onto the shoulder with its front wheels facing away from one another, while the driver waits for the tow truck? That’s what happens if you ignore the signs of a bad ball joint.

Struts (also known as shocks) control the bounce of your vehicle’s springs. Your car or truck has one or more of these at each corner, and they’re crucial to its suspension system — the hardware that makes your car ride how it rides. Struts can be damaged or obliterated by a severe pothole strike, which can result in visible fluid leaks, a noisy ride, excessive harshness or bouncing, and terrible handling.

Bushings are like your cartilage — squishy, slippery bits of connective tissue that allow our bones and joints to smoothly slip and bend at key locations. In your Grand Cherokee, bushings are like rubber tubes and donuts made of things like urethane and rubber, and they’re installed to cushion suspension parts from one another, enabling a smooth and quiet ride.

Bushings may be torn or otherwise damaged by potholes, or required while replacing other larger components damaged by a pothole strike. Failed bushings usually present with harsh knocking sounds and sensations.

The best tip to avoid potholes

The best way to protect yourself from pothole-related trauma is to make sure you see them coming.

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If you’re a fan of tailgating, you’re at a significantly increased risk of hitting a pothole, since you’ve got a limited view of the road surface ahead of your car. Instead of tailgating, maintain and defend a two or three car-length gap in traffic. There are a multitude of reasons this is a good idea, and in pothole season, one of those is the added ability to see incoming potholes while you’ve got time to react to them.

Assuming every puddle contains a crater big enough to swallow a piece of agricultural equipment is a great way to avoid losing a wheel, too.

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Twitter: @SudburyStar


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