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Can Hitting a Pothole Damage Your Car?

Image courtesy of Steven Depolo on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Everyone has seen them in the distance and plotted a zigzag strategy to avoid them without crashing into anything else; potholes are simply irregularities on the roads where the asphalt has failed. They’re caused by heavy vehicles, repeated freezing of water that seeps into cracks and other factors that unduly stress the material of the road.

Image courtesy of Lee Cannon on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Image courtesy of Lee Cannon on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The damage from hitting one, even at a slow speed, can range from annoying to catastrophic. Image you hit a pothole and now your car shakes. This can happen at slower speeds. Hitting one at high speeds can even flip a car. Fortunately, technology is in development that will automatically help drivers avoid these hazards.

The Dreaded Pothole: Every Driver’s Nightmare

Image courtesy of Warren Flick on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Nearly two-thirds of the roads in northern states are ranked as “poor” according to the website “Pothole: Preserve and Protect.” Even in warmer states and areas where it doesn’t snow that often, such as Arizona and California, potholes are a serious problem.

Image courtesy of State Farm on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Image courtesy of State Farm on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

No one likes hitting a pothole or even braking because of one. Aside from the damage that could result from hitting it, there is a very real danger of an accident if an unwary or inattentive driver suddenly swerves to avoid a pothole and goes over the line into approaching traffic.

How Do They Form? 

Image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

As stated earlier, there are two main factors that contribute to pothole formation: water and wear and tear. The pressure exerted downward by the heavy vehicles using a road each day causes minor imperfections in the asphalt, which, in turn, allows water to seep in.

In cold climates, the freezing and melting of ice and its accompanying effects can compromise the structural integrity of the road and cause damage.

Thousands of vehicles passing through the area, especially trucks and other heavy vehicles that have contributed to the initial structural damage in the first place, further worsen such water damage. This swiftly becomes a repeating dynamic.

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Secondarily, there are contributing reasons to pothole formation, which include:

  • Pavement that is too thin to support the weight of the vehicles using the road
  • Not enough drainage for water on and around the roadway
  • Failure of existing drainage systems
  • Defects of workmanship that result in various cracks, small holes and large fissures

What Is Being Done? 

Image courtesy of Deborah Fitchett on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Starting with the obvious, municipalities are filling in potholes. In the State of New York, drivers can even report potholes at a specific website. The New York State Department of Transportation updates its own website with the same information so that drivers from all over the state can avoid particularly nasty areas. Following suit, federal highway authorities joined online projects where drivers can report potholes and recommend alternate routes.

Image courtesy of get directly down on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Engineers are also tackling the problem by recommending solutions whereby the contributing factors are either improved or removed, depending on the factor. For example, they’ve proposed building drainage culverts and sluices from more durable material than before, so that they fail less often. Additionally, they recommend a more stringent cycle of preventative road maintenance than ever before.

How Bad Are Potholes for Your Car? 

Image courtesy of DDohler on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

There are many other things that can happen when hitting a pothole, no matter the speed. Flat tires, bent wheel rims and out-of-adjustment alignments are the most common maladies affecting pothole-hitting cars. According to “Popular Mechanics”, a driver would have to be traveling very fast for there to be any structural damage, such as a bent frame or ruined axle. If such damage occurs, it must be fixed immediately; otherwise, there is life-threatening danger if you continue to drive.

One should also be careful and check each tire that hits a pothole very shortly thereafter.

It’s possible that, even if there is no visible damage to the tire, the steel belts have been damaged or broken. Such damage to the tire, or tires, is dangerous if you continue to drive without addressing the issue.

Even though they might damage your car, most potholes will be just an annoyance that won’t cause any damage as long as the driver is operating their vehicle appropriately for the prevailing road conditions.

New Technology Addresses the Issue of Potholes

Imagine driving down the road in very heavy traffic, when suddenly, you get a warning from your navigation system: “Pothole and raised manhole cover 1.5 miles ahead.” Even though this might seem like science fiction, engineers at Jaguar Land Rover don’t think it should stay that way. The company is working on a system that will detect such anomalies in the road and even share them via cloud computing with other vehicles in the area, so that drivers can keep their attention on the road and adjust their driving.

The system uses a combination of cameras, sensors and GPS-location devices to detect, analyze and broadcast the dangers of existing potholes. They are even combining the system with brake control and avoidance systems to test its performance. As of yet, however, the system is still “in development” and is nowhere near production. Still, the engineers are confident that the system will be in place within a few years.

Is Pothole Detection Technology a Good Solution? 

Image courtesy of Arlington County on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Having such a system would be a relief to thousands of drivers tackling the pothole problems every day. Still, you have to wonder what happens if the system malfunctions? If the system is designed to function with avoidance systems and brake control, will there be an accident because a car tried to avoid a nonexistent pothole? Will a car get rear ended because the brakes locked up to avoid a manhole cover that was “too high” six weeks ago, and the system didn’t update itself properly? Google is keeping the competition honest by working on its own system.

These are the possible shortcomings of such systems:

  • Malfunctions and irregular updates
  • The cost of such a system
  • Issues with cloud connections

Despite these, the system promises to be a great advancement in automobile safety. The system will:

  • Find imperfections in the road ahead
  • Warn the driver of these imperfections
  • Warn others
  • Catalog the information for later analysis


Image courtesy of Rusty Clark on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Image courtesy of Rusty Clark on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As with any such technological advancement in the realm of automobiles and other vehicles, it will likely be most effective when used in conjunction with alert and skilled drivers, as well as regular updates about fixed road issues. By helping them avoid potholes, the system will, hopefully, prevent accidents and damage to vehicles. Potholes are a nuisance but are not likely to cause terrible damage. Still, drivers should remain alert at all times and take reasonable steps to avoid them.

We Wish to Hear About Your Experiences!

  • Have you had any close calls because of potholes?
  • How is the condition of the roads in your area?
  • Has your car suffered damages because of potholes?

Let us know what you think in the comments below!


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