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driving concerns

Question: I hit a big pothole. I tried to swerve and slammed on my brakes, but it was still hard enough to rattle my teeth. Should I be worried about my SUV? Could there be damage I can’t see? How pricey could it get? - Cory, Toronto

As long as your tires are properly inflated, your car should be able to handle garden-variety potholes - but if you hit a deep one, your wallet could take a hit too.

"If it's a normal pothole and you have the proper air pressure, your vehicle should be able to absorb it and you should go on your way - but it really depends on the depth of the pothole, your speed and the air pressure in your tire," says Sean Cooney-Mann, store manager for an OK Tire in Toronto. "You get people who aren't even aware they've hit anything, and then we get the vehicle up on the hoist and see the damage - it could just require a $99 alignment, but I've seen it escalate to $3,000-$4,500."

George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association says potholes cause damage to rims and tires but can also cause suspension damage like a broken ball joint or a blown strut.

"Over the long haul, suspension wear is accelerated" Iny says. "This is noticeable to some dealers in Ontario buying exported Quebec vehicles."

"On the minimal side it could be bapd enough to need an alignment," Cooney-Mann says. "But I've seen rims cracked in half, I've seen a strut or control arm that snapped and went through the tower - that was a missing manhole cover."

Alignment is the adjustment of a car's suspension – the system that connects the car to its wheels. If the alignment is off, you can get uneven and premature tire wear - or the car can pull to one side while you're driving.

There could also be tire damage. They may look fine, but could blow out later.

"You might get a little bulge on the side of the tire because there's a tear in the inside lining - when you run your hand along the sidewall, you can feel it," he says. "The car's still drivable and people don't notice it, but if you hit that exact spot again, you'll get a blowout."

If you've hit a pothole, find somewhere safe to pull over and inspect the damage, Cooney-Mann says.

"We had a young lady with a Mercedes SUV and a chunk of the rim had cracked off and the tire was barely holding air," he said. "But there was no immediate drivability change - if she hadn't gotten out to look, she wouldn't have known."

And, even if you don’t see damage – it’s a good idea to take it in to have the alignment checked, he says.

If you do get pothole damage, your insurance treats it like a collision "and are covered if the vehicle has collision coverage," says Pete Karageorgos, director of consumer and industry relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

You'll have to pay the deductible - and your rates could go up.

A gentleman hit a pothole and we were talking $900 a wheel just for the rims and I said 'why don't you consider insurance,'" Cooney-Mann says. "I think he had a $250 deductible and the claim ended up being $1900."

Depending on where you live, the city may cover damage. You may also be able to sue.

"How you sue the municipality and what you are allowed to sue for will vary by province and sometimes the applicable legislation for that town," the APA's Iny says. "Take photos of the location and record the time and place accurately."

In Toronto, you have 10 days to submit a written notice of claim.

"Quite frankly, because we have a very robust program of parol and inspection, the success rate for any claims is very minimal," says Hector Moreno, Toronto manager of road operations. "In order for you to be successful… we have to be grossly negligent - records show that we knew about it a month ago but nothing was done about it."

Toronto has to follow the province's minimum maintenance standards for municipal roads, Moreno says.

"If you submit a pothole complaint, we have to fix it within 24 hours on an expressway, five days for a main arterial road and up to 20 days on secondary roads and local streets," Moreno says. "But typically complaints received for potholes are attended to within 48 hours, and we have patrols on the expressways 24/7."

This year, the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) did a poll of 2,000 drivers, asking them how much they'd spent repairing damage caused by potholes in the last five years.

"Canadians said that potholes cost them $1.4 billion a year," says CAA spokesperson Kristine D'Arbelles.

Cooney-Mann doesn't think potholes are getting worse - he thinks more people are feeling them — and getting pothole damage — due to bigger, pricier wheels.

"If you hit a pothole with your Cadillac 25 years ago, you wouldn't even feel it," he says. "If you hit one now with your new (Cadillac) CTS with 19-inch wheels, you're feeling that through your whole body."

Four few tips to minimize pricey repairs during pothole season:

  • Top up your tire pressure: The best protection against potholes is properly inflated tires, Cooney-Mann says. Look inside the manual or the driver’s door jamb to find the proper tire pressure for your car - the number on the side of the tires is the maximum recommended by the tire manufacturer. Check tire pressure monthly.
  • Slow down and watch out: Spring is pothole season, so you should be keeping your eyes peeled, says APA's Iny. But what about the potholes you might not be able to see? Watch for cyclists - and other cars - swerving to avoid them, says the CAA. "Stay off seams at the edges and centre of the road, a key spot where potholes usually develop," says CAA's D'Arbelles. "Be cautious when the roads are wet, as there may be a pothole under that puddle."
  • Try to drive over it: If you see a pothole, your first instinct might be to swerve - and that could cause damage that you could have otherwise avoided. Damage only happens when your tires hit the pothole. “It’s actually okay to just drive over them - you just want to avoid hitting them with your tires,” Cooney-Mann says. “People often swerve and then hit it with one of their wheels - that’s when the damage happens.” The only time you don’t want to drive over a pothole? If something big enough to damage the underside of your car is sticking out of it.
  • Don’t brake: “It can cause a wheel to lock and transmit a harsher impact to the vehicle,” says APA’s Iny.

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