How to know if that pothole you hit has damaged your car

If you're unlucky enough to hit a pothole, then don’t risk it. Take your car in for an inspection to be sure it’s safe to drive.

A Goodyear service technician checking tires.
A Goodyear service technician checking tires. –Goodyear

One thing drivers in the Boston area deal with each spring is a potentially destructive pothole season. The cycle of freezes and thaws leaves divots of varying depths on roads across Massachusetts.

Pothole repair is a major component on the agenda of the state’s transportation department: MassDOT. The department has already filled 5,312 potholes in Suffolk County this year alone, and there are still plenty of potholes to be repaired.

If your vehicle runs into a pothole, here’s what you need to do to make sure you’re still safe to drive.

Inspect ASAP, then visit a pro, if needed

Goodyear Auto Service Store Worcester manager Peter Cestodio sees a lot of pothole damage this time of year, and has some suggestions about what to do when a pothole catches you off guard.

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“Pull over as soon as possible and at least do a visual check,”Cestodio said. If your car comes with a tire pressure monitoring system, it may illuminate to tell you if a tire is losing air. If not, he suggests checking the tire pressure, too.

You’ll want to inspect the tire’s sidewall, and look for any abrasions or bubbles, which are signs your tire is in trouble. “Look at the wheel itself, too. It could crack or bend,” Cestodio said. You might be able to see this damage on the outside of the wheel, but Cestodio cautioned that there’s still the inside edge, which you can’t see. The only way to know for sure if there’s damage is to take the car to a professional who can put it on a lift for a thorough inspection.

During the month of April, you can take your car to any Goodyear Auto Service Center and they’ll do a free alignment and tire check. If a technician finds a problem, there’s $10 off any alignment and a rebate of up to $100 on shocks and struts.

Pothole strategies

John Paul, senior manager of traffic safety at AAA Northeast, has suggestions about how to keep from damaging your car in the first place.  Basically, it’s best to avoid potholes completely.

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“The best thing possible is to avoid it,” Paul said. “Swerve if you can do so safely.”

This is great advice, but on narrow city streets there’s often no room to maneuver.

“If you have no other choice, slow down as quickly as possible, then just as you are about to enter the pothole, take your foot off the brake,” said Paul.

This trick does two things at once: It raises your car up a bit, which can help to minimize damage, and it lets the tire roll over the pothole. This is a much better option than sliding through the pothole with the wheels locked.

Don’t drive damaged…

If a technician finds tire or wheel damage, then it’s best to have those parts replaced. A bent wheel might be able to be bent back into the correct shape, but it’s not a good idea. Cestodio cautions that it may be structurally damaged. “In the interest of safety, replace it.”

Even if you head to a technician for an inspection after a nasty brush with a pothole, you still might not be in the clear. “A tire sidewall can become weak and fail months later,” said Paul. “If you notice any vibration or if the steering wheel is off center, have the car checked.”

It’s not only tire and wheel damage you have to watch for when you hit a pothole. Depending on how hard you hit, there may be damage to the suspension, which can build up with repeated hits. If you hear a scraping sound when you hit a pothole, that could signal damage to the exhaust pipe or muffler. Even the engine and transmission can suffer through repeated pothole hits.