Owners Tips

Welcome to Pothole Hell! Drive with Care

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, ... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
– (with apologies to) Charles Dickens

Despair? It’s those hellacious potholes. They’re the uniquely Canadian addition to the other inevitabilities, death and taxes. Indeed, each of us thinks their town deserves the name Pothell (“And this year’s Poscar goes to… Hogtown!”). From winter in St. John’s to Whitehorse, our cities’ roads resemble your hormonal nephew’s face after three hours at the Chinese New Year buffet.

Potholes. Potholes. The word even sounds ugly. And no wonder. These missing pieces of road can be super unsafe, ruinously expensive to cross, and really, really bloody deep. But following these tips can help. Well hopefully they should help you stay safe or safe-ish, somewhat less broke and, at the very least, above ground.

Immediate tip: Brake before potholes, not over them

We already talked about inevitability. Drive over a pothole as slowly as you can but not still braking. Lift your foot just prior to contact. In an article about potholes, autoTRADER.ca co-writer Justin Pritchard observed four years ago that braking sends weight to the front of your car, functionally making the very piece of your car that’s plummeting into the pothole heavier and, thus, open to greater resulting damage.

Let’s say you followed this advice, reducing a prodigiously expensive bang! to a worrisome bump. Afterwards, pay close attention to your car’s performance, especially the steering and suspension. Listen for any new noise and watch the feel of the ride. If there are no new discernable sounds, that’s good. If there are no noticeable shakes or wobbles, that’s really good.

Short-term tip: Put that low-slung speedster away

In last year’s screed against potholes, autoTRADER.ca co-writer Brian Early noted how those squat tires you see on sports coupes and performance sedans are less likely to survive exploring potholes than the taller tires you see on SUVs and trucks.

But the risks don’t end there. The closer you are to the ground, the more likely parts other than your tires are to impact. Metals, paints, and plastics don’t absorb impact as well as rubber. (Look it up. It’s science.) Which, as you’ll see below, could mean serious knock-on effects. The deeper the hole, the deeper the dent and debt. Maybe leave your little red cure for midlife crisis stored away until it’s warm enough to put the roof down and show off your racing gloves.

Short-ish-term tip: Inspect your tire treads for bald patches and sidewalls for cracks

Okay, so this tip demands quitting your warmed cabin and heated leather seat. But it’s a quick inspection you can conduct in the time it takes your hormonal nephew to load his pungent hockey equipment into your trunk. (How should I know why you’re driving him home instead of his parents? They’re your family. Talk to them.) Back to your tire inspection.

Look for cracks or bulges in the sidewalls. If you find them, it’s not good. See your mechanic ASAP. Also check the treads. If you find bald sections, your alignment’s likely off. Again, see your mechanic right away.

But what if you’re not sure? Maybe you rammed the wall of a lunar crater at what felt like the jump to lightspeed but still can’t quite tell if it afflicted your ride. The tires seem okay but this was a pothole so big it could win prizes. Well, best see your mechanic anyway. As Mick Jagger never sang: you can’t always eyeball misalignment – sometimes only a machine can read it.

Medium-term tip: Check your tire pressure with each drop/jump in temperature

Fill your tires according to spec. Do it regularly. A drop in temperature of just five degrees softens your tires by one PSI. Moreover, your tires naturally lose about one PSI each month. If you haven’t checked them since changing them at Thanksgiving, you’re softer than half-cooked turkey stuffing. Two years ago, I interviewed TV spokes-mechanic Bill Gardiner about this very (and very Canadian) topic of potholes. When you traverse one with soft tires, Gardiner says, “the rim hits the tire like a guillotine and slices it.”

Guillotine? Sacré bleu!

Following this tip with 2019’s temperature fluctuations would mean checking and filling your tires several times a week. Recently, the Greater Toronto Area’s seen the mercury vary by nearly 40 degrees Celsius in just three days. Last Tuesday alone, speaking of local fluctuations, the temperature plummeted from 10 degrees (that’s plus) at midnight to the minus 5 by sunrise. All the road expansion and contraction caused by ping-ponging temps is what creates potholes. So, don’t blame the city. Get lost, Jack Frost!

Fill but don’t overinflate your tires. They won’t burst like a balloon but neither will they absorb the bang. Without any give, the impact can secondarily damage (or at least exacerbate the wear and tear on) your steering and suspension. Which leads to…

Long-term tip: Maintain your vehicle (No, really!)

People hate looking after their cars, especially when ice pellets are driving sideways into their face like at the time of writing. Sure, maybe if something dings long enough or we smell smoke, the car gets looked at. But it’s not a coincidence when potholes more severely damage cars whose parts are already aged and fragile from wear and tear or neglect.

We already mentioned checking your tires and maintaining their pressure to spec. That means owning and using a tire-pressure gauge. Check for differences in suspension, steering, and alignment every time you hit another pothole. But also, have your mechanic inspect your alignment and steering more closely in spring and fall when you change your tires (or when you rotate your “all-season” radials).

Enough about your tires, wheels, steering, and suspension. Salt and general wear and tear can be buggers on the rest of your vehicle. Whatever isn’t maintained is vulnerable next time there’s a pounding. The whole car reverberates. So, clean your car regularly and attend the recommended inspections.

General tip: Be neighbourly! Report potholes

While each of us feels our town deserves the title Pothell, I vote for Toronto because of how my city’s drivers and quotidian suburban visitors share the road, making the Pothell that much more hellish to relish.

Let’s illustrate with this simple test: Google the words “pothole” and “Toronto”. The first two options that appear aren’t ads; they’re links from Toronto.ca, our civic website. The second is on the subject of Potholes, but the first is Pothole Claims. What can you infer from that? The algorithm expects us to seek damages for potholes before even asking how to report them! As the kids say, it’s one more reason we can’t have nice things.