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Potholes can cause severe damage to your car. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Potholes can cause severe damage to your car. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Drive, She Said

Potholes are a real kick in the asphalt Add to ...

The usual joke about Canada is that we have two seasons: winter and construction. This year, we can probably add a third: pothole.

Caused by the first and predicating the second, if this third season seems particularly bad this year, it’s because it is.

Last year’s relatively mild winter lulled us; this year, according to Peter Noehammer, director of transportation services for the City of Toronto, the alternating freezing and thawing, paired with all the snow and water, made for a cratered mess.

“Melt and water seeps into cracks and weak spots and asphalt is forced out,” he reports. “Frost causes upheaval, and then you’re below the surface of the asphalt. That’s the evolution of a pothole.”

While major arteries are patrolled constantly by city maintenance work crews, they rely on citizens to report problems on those roads less travelled. You can call 311 or use a mobile app in Toronto to call in a pothole, and you can also report online. While the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway are city-maintained, major routes like Highway 401 and the QEW fall under provincial jurisdiction.

There are laws and standards that the city must adhere to in repairing the streets before they destroy your car. Using a rating system of one to five – dependent on classification of road, volume and speed limit – potholes are assessed and addressed within a mandated time frame. Noehammer has about 40 to 45 crews (about 100 workers) working extended hours to tackle the problem. Generally, a repair will take place within three to five days; with those heavy-volume roads getting the most – and the most immediate – attention.

A lot can happen in that three to five days, I suggest to Noehammer. How about a warning? Crews can do a quick fix with a cold mix of asphalt for a temporary repair, or put up a barrier or cone as a warning for motorists until a more permanent solution has been done.

And speaking of destroying your car, just how bad can it be? A midday call to Jim Clarke at Ardent Automotive in Burlington, Ont., is perfect timing. “I have my brother-in-law’s car in here right now. He hit a pothole at least 10 other people have hit on King Road, and it tore a gash in his tire.” That torn tire meant no limping to the mechanics; the spare had to go on immediately, and now a new tire.

You’ve probably experienced that jaw-snapping bang when you hit a pothole. There is that moment much like after you’ve taken a fall when you gingerly try to ascertain if anything is broken. Potholes can and do appear overnight, and driving unfamiliar routes can have you slamming full force into traps locals are expertly skirting.

How bad can it be? If you’re lucky, and your speed was low, you might come away with a sigh of relief. But double-check your alignment, and listen and feel for noise and indications of front-end damage. Clarke says the most common problems are going to be ball joints, bent control arms, torn tires and damaged rims. All but the rims are vital to the safety of your vehicle, and your day just got rescheduled.

How expensive can it get? Depending on what you drive, an alignment might run you a hundred dollars, a tire twice that, but as Clarke notes, “we had a guy with a 2008 Sierra with specialty rims – a thousand bucks to replace one rim.”

And if you take a deep pothole at a decent speed, that tire can blow out hard enough that you end up with fender damage, as well. While vehicles with higher clearance will have some defence against a pothole, your speed when you hit it can render that advantage moot.

So. Who pays? City websites lay out the official route to making a claim against the city. You can parse your own car insurance’s fine print to see what might be covered. You will need detailed notes about when/what/where and photos – especially in this day of cameras in every device – are advisable. For a complaint to the city, you must report within 10 dates from the event, and you can do it online or by mail.

What are the odds you’ll see some bucks for your bang? Slim to none.

While Noehammer notes that the city will “vigorously defend claims,” the city’s own website makes it even clearer: “It’s important to know that the majority of property damage claims made against the City of Toronto are denied as City divisions regularly meet or exceed standard service levels.”

Best advice? Slow down.

And now is probably the best time to respect the space you should be leaving between you and the car ahead: it may not seem chivalrous to watch someone else find the pothole for you, but if you’ve given yourself that cushion, you can save yourself a lot of inconvenience, and perhaps a lot of money.


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