Pothole Problems in Winter Weather

Winter weather is once again in the forecast, which means potholes will continue to be an escalating problem.

They are costly when your car hits one, which is easier to do these days. Although they normally crop up when springtime approaches, potholes are already the bane of existence for Virginia motorists.

Blame these woes on the historic, record-breaking snowstorms, and the winter weather that won’t seem to end this year, spawning the worst outbreak of potholes in recent memory.

“Potholes are not only vexing and nerve-rattling to motorists. They are also a significant threat to the safety of motorists and pedestrians,” says Martha M. Meade, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “Hitting a pothole can cause drivers to lose control of their vehicles possibly resulting in a crash, and swerving to avoid a pothole can be just as dangerous.”

Potholes cause a variety of problems for motorists, ranging from lost hubcaps, warped wheel alignment, damaged tires, fractured undercarriages, bent axles, smashed mufflers, out of shape shocks and rattled nerves. AAA Mid-Atlantic Automotive Services warns that hitting a pothole at high speed increases the chance of damage to tires, wheels, shocks, struts or spring.

The automotive club provides motorists the following safety tips when they encounter a pothole:

- Keep an eye on traffic patterns. Cars that slow down or move quickly to other lanes may be a sign of major potholes or road damage ahead.
- Beware of snow, ice or water that may be concealing a deep pothole.
- Report major potholes or road damage to your state, or local transportation department
- Avoid swerving. Swerving can cause a loss of vehicle control
- Slow down. Carefully avoid sharp impact with potholes.
- Roll through. Rolling through the pothole is better than braking rapidly.
- Inflate tires properly. Over inflated and under inflated tires increase risk of tire and wheel damage.

Potholes also drain the pocketbooks and wallets of the vehicle owner, the auto club notes. Costs for repairing damage caused by potholes can range from $50 for a simple wheel alignment to $500 or more for replacing a top-of-the-line alloy wheel. In some cases damage for poor road conditions can add up to $2,000 or more in repair costs over the life of a car, insurance agents say.

Compounding matters, vehicle suspension and steering components may also be affected. About 500,000 auto insurance claims are filed each year for pothole damage, according to the Independent Insurance Agents of America.

The group estimates, “Nearly $4.8 billion is spent each year to repair damage to Americans’ cars resulting from run-ins with potholes, utility cuts and other dangerous road conditions.”

Much of that comes straight out of consumer's pockets, the group says. Motorists in pothole-prone areas should understand the need for proper collision coverage in order to avoid costly repairs, some insurance agents contend. However, AAA says that might be bad advice.

“Depending upon the amount of the damages and the deductible you have, it may not be wise to file a claim for the damages,” advises Meade. “Filing a claim for pothole damage may impact future auto insurance rates.”

“Hitting even one especially severe pothole could alter the alignment of a wheel and cause uneven tire wear,” notes Jeffrey Boone, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Car Doctor and an ASE Master Technician with AAA Mid-Atlantic Automotive Services. “Uneven tire wear means the tire will need to be replaced sooner than necessary, causing a needless expense. A broken shock or strut from a pothole encounter could alter the steering and handling of a vehicle, and create dangers when driving at higher speeds or in tight corners. Broken suspension components should be remedied immediately.”

Potholes are normally formed in the aftermath of winter’s freeze-thaw cycles, which includes rain and snow. As spring approaches, they seem to pop up overnight. Potholes stem from road salt seeping into cracks in the surface of the road. When that’s combined with the vibration of car tires over the cracks, it causes the asphalt to weaken.

Once there is a weak spot, every vehicle that travels over it makes the problem worse. Higher temperatures warm the cold pavement, melting and evaporating any frozen water in the weakened, cracked road. That process creates air pockets under the roadway’s surface, which, in turn, can cause the pavement to fail completely, causing potholes to proliferate.

Virginia motorists can report a pothole by filling out the pothole reporting form on VDOT’s Website or by calling 800-367-7263.

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