We've all done it at some point in our lives while driving down the road. Maybe you're taking bites of a hamburger with one hand with the other hand at 12 o'clock as you are barreling down the highway or street when suddenly, the vehicle bounces like a 10-year-old child jumping on a brand-new trampoline. Your ketchup-filled burger with cheese is now all over your brand-new pants and you don't know how to feel emotionally about what just happened. Well, the fact is, you hit a big pothole on the road and you're miles from home or work with tie-dyed clothing you didn't start your day wearing.
It can be terrifying when you hit a sizable pothole and one thing you shouldn't do if is think your car is fine, because it might not be at all. You might be late to wherever you're heading, but pulling over and taking a few minutes to check for damage and clean yourself up, if you did drop your burger on yourself, is worth the possibility of preventing further damage or, worse, an accident.
Here are some tips to help you in a situation like this.
Pull over in a safe location for inspection. Here is what you should check first after hitting a pothole.
1) Check your dash instrument panel for any warning lights. This will be your first point of reference for an immediate issue that warrants you to pull over immediately at a safe location to inspect possible damage.
2) As you pull over to a safe location, turn the radio down and the A/C unit down to begin listening for irregular noises coming from your vehicle. You might hear something has partially fallen from your vehicle and dragged on the floor or even a flat tire.
3) Inspect your wheel for cracks or dents. Driving on a cracked rim poses a considerable safety risk to yourself and others on the road. The wheel could pop off and fly into another vehicle and you may lose control of your own vehicle.
4) If the wheel itself has no visible damage, move on to inspect your tire. The tire is made of rubber and will have absorbed most of the impact, but the thinnest parts of a tire are its sidewalls, which would have flexed during the initial impact. Depending on how hard you hit the pothole, the worst-case scenario is seeing a bulge or bubble on the tire's sidewall. If you do see this, the tire's integrity has been compromised. Change to your spare in the trunk before proceeding on your journey.
5) If the tire and rim are fine, check under your vehicle for any visible damage to the undercarriage. If you see oil or any other type of fluid leaking from your other than your A/C unit (if running), take the inspection to identify where the leak is coming from. You DO NOT want to continue driving your vehicle when fluid leaks out. You will damage your vehicle if you continue driving.
6) So, you've made it this far! Now do a simple check of your steering alignment by turning the steering wheel to center the wheels forward. Assuming you're in a safe location, put the vehicle in drive and drive about 5-10 mph with your hands loosely holding the steering wheel. If it begins to turn in any other direction other than the straightforward, you will need to take your vehicle to a mechanic. Depending on how bad your alignment is off, this is not as serious as the first inspection points. You should drive to your destination, but getting your alignment done as soon as possible is highly recommended.
By this point you will have either concluded that your vehicle has come out of this undamaged or that your day will be sidelined as you change the tire or wait for a tow truck.
How bad can the damage be when hitting a pothole?
The best-case scenario is that your vehicle is undamaged, and you can go about your day. But the damage, as you've read, can render your vehicle inoperable. Bent rims and damaged tires are the primary concern that will stop you from continuing down the road. If there is damage, you will want to see if your previous tire installer's warranty covers such events; you might just get a new tire at a discount or for free. However, the rim damage will most likely not be covered, but you won't save any money if you don't ask first.
If the pothole is big enough or your speed is fast enough, you might have damaged something under the vehicle like a bent tie rod on your suspension or hit and cracked the oil pan. If you've inspected your vehicle and found an issue like this, picking up a Haynes Manual to help you repair and replace the damaged part will save you $100s or even thousands in labor costs at a mechanic's shop.
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