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John Ducker: How to get through pothole season unscathed

Want to avoid costly damage from potholes? Go slow, don’t tailgate and watch your tire pressure.
A pothole in San Jose, California, on Jan. 10. Blown tires, bent wheel rims, broken steering components and body damage are some of the problems potholes can cause, writes John Ducker. Bay Area News Group

We’re on the verge of the freeze, melt and refreeze season now, and with that comes one of the driver’s all-time pet peeves — the pothole.

Water seeping beneath asphalt, then freezing, melting and refreezing over and over again gives birth to these insidious Canadian road cavities.

The Automotive News of Canada estimates that potholes cause about $1 billion in damage to our vehicles every year, and surely it’s one of the most annoying repairs we deal with — blown tires, bent wheel rims, broken steering components and body damage are the main problems that potholes serve up.

I’ve been there. A small water-filled hole, which looked like nothing as I approached, was in fact a deep, sharp-edged cavern that blew out my front tire (or should I say, Dad’s front tire) and bent the rim beyond repair. Bill: around $150. That was 45-plus years ago. In Manitoba the average repair cost today is $2,100.

Potholes are a fact of driving life, and if you go by our local letters to the editor, things are pretty bad out there right now.

But there are a few things you can do to minimize the risk and frustration of the pothole.

I made the number one mistake — following too close. We weren’t going fast, but I was still too close to see enough of the road right in front of me. There was not enough reaction time.

Most driving experts agree that being too close to the person in front is the leading cause of pothole heartache. So back off a little more, even on quiet streets and allow yourself time to slow, stop or manoeuvre.

Pay attention to your tire pressure. When your tire is underinflated, you’ve given up an important cushion that protects you from damage.

For most of us, hitting a pothole won’t result in catastrophic damage, but the effects can be cumulative. Keeping your vehicle properly maintained, including the tires, will cut down on progressive and ultimately expensive damage.

A puddle in the middle of a road is a warning sign — avoid if possible. That water is filling something up. If you’re lucky it’s a shallow depression. If you’re not, it’s a sharp-edged pond, probably way deeper than you imagined, that can easily blow out a tire or worse.

Pay attention to vehicle behaviour in front of you. If you spot people braking or swerving all of sudden, realize you’re heading to the same spot. Back off from the car in front and slow down. Give yourself that much more time to react. It might not even be a pothole. It could be a person lying in the road.

Most experts agree that you should not swerve to avoid a pothole. Better having a blown tire than driving head on into another car or taking out a cyclist. You should only swerve if you’re completely sure you can do it safely. Otherwise, braking is the best strategy.

Of course, the old standby for just about any driving safety scenario applies here as well — slow down. Slower usually means less — and possibly no — damage.

Glove Box: Martha wrote in recently with a concern about leaving small children unattended around vehicles. She witnessed a situation where a small child was left standing in front of a running vehicle while the adult in charge was tending to things inside the car. It’s a worthy concern. While Canada doesn’t apparently track “backover” accidents, some U.S. studies show that 50 children a week are injured this way. Disturbingly, 70% of those cases are caused by family members.

Standing in front is not safe either. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Association records that each year there are also 400 deaths and 20,000 injuries caused by drivers being unable to see into the blindspot in front of their vehicles. Of course, there is the additional worry of the vehicle rolling away while the driver is busy doing other things.

There are two prevention methods I like: 1) Load your most precious cargo first. At least when little motor-legs are inside the car, you know exactly where they are and have more control with them if needed — and of course never leave a child unattended inside; 2) When exiting or standing outside a vehicle, use the “one hand on the car” rule, until everyone’s ready to leave or get in. Only when the adult says it’s safe, can we stop touching the car and carry on.

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