Pothole Damage Costs America The Equivalent of 67 Brand New High Schools Per Year

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Potholes cost American drivers a staggering sum each year for repairs. Here’s what the latest data tells us.

A new focus article by AAA reveals that American drivers spend an average of $3 billion on pothole damage repairs each year. And that repair cost data is now two years old. With the average cost to build an entirely new high school building in America at $45 million each, the damage to our vehicles is costing Americans the equivalent of 67 new high school buildings per year. How old is your town’s school?

Drilling down to the individual level, the study also says that the average pothole damage repair bill is $300. And your insurance is unlikely to cover any of that since your deductible is likely $500 or $1,000 – if you even have insurance to cover the damage. “In the last five years, 16 million drivers across the country have suffered pothole damage to their vehicles,” John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair told The Insurance journal. “The problems range from tire punctures and bent wheels, to more expensive suspension damage.” If your vehicle is damaged due to hitting a big pothole, stop the vehicle in a safe area and take some pictures. You can try to get reimbursed for the damage from the government agency responsible for the road. Some areas take more responsibility than others.

Pothole Damage Is Not Always Visible

Mechanics know that the damage you do to your vehicle is also cumulative. Although you may think that you avoided any problems when you hear and feel that familiar “Wham!” your damage may be hidden. Ask any mechanic which side of the vehicle wheel bearings most commonly fail on and they will tell you it is the “curb side.” That is where potholes are most commonly found.  Potholes are usually formed where seeps under the pavement or concrete road surface. Once under the surface, it freezes at night. That expanding ice pushes on the pavement and then cracks form when vehicles roll over that. Eventually, the crack lets in more liquid water and they cycle repeats until the pavement breaks apart and is then pushed out by the tires of a car or truck leaving a hole behind. If the hole is down as far as the soft substrate of sand and gravel, the hole quickly grows. BestRide’s John Paul, a.k.a., AAA’s Car Doctor, says, “the pothole can fill with water again, refreeze and break off more asphalt and the pothole become a car eating crater.”

Monster Potholes

Although the tire, wheel, wheel bearing, and suspension connections are scary enough, John Paul, a certified mechanic, says that in some cases, the damage goes a bit further. “In what I would call the worst case,” Paul said “part of the drivetrain (engine and transmission) can suffer enough damage the component loses oil and fails completely, requiring a complete rebuild or replacement.” While certainly not common we can attest that we do sometimes see some very sad stories reported at the Car Talk Community related to pothole damage. One notable post from 2008 titled “pothole kills car” told the story of a member’s vehicle being stopped dead by a pothole that damaged the suspension and also disabled the vehicle’s electrical system. We have even heard stories first-hand of owners whose car hit a pothole so hard that the vehicle’s crash system inertia switch discontinued power to the engine.

Pothole Progress

AAA and others want to encourage lawmakers and government agencies to do more to prevent potholes by spending more on road repair. We’re all for that, but the auto industry is also working on the problem. Ford has been developing and fielding a pothole avoidance system that helps detect and then take action to minimize the impact damage.

Then there is Waze. We love Waze for its navigation system and its first responder alerts. However, the Waze app also reports upcoming potholes so drivers can be on the lookout.

Think Ahead When Shopping

When you shop for your next new or used vehicle, think ahead to the reality of the roads you travel. If you live in an area with a lot of potholes and road damage, consider a vehicle that does not have super-low-profile tires. The added sidewall can give you some protection against damage and smaller diameter wheels mean smaller less expensive tires. Base and mid-grade trims may be better in the real world in this regard.