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Watch: What happens to your suspension when you hit a pothole

Watch: What happens to your suspension when you hit a pothole
Autos
Many cities and towns across Canada are entering that time of year when rims get bent, tires get gouged, shocks get smashed and wallets get emptied.

It’s pothole season, folks.

The enemy is everywhere asphalt is, or was. Many lie unseen beneath road slush and snow until an ill-placed wheel makes contact — then it’s over in a blink.

Hit the wrong pothole the wrong way, and it’ll open up your sidewall like a can of microwave beefaroni.

Of course, tires are the first and primary source of contact for the enemy’s assault. Sometimes, they’ll strike a wheel and tire simultaneously, damaging both and causing immediate and catastrophic tire failure.

Maybe not on the first strike, mind you. After all, a few good pothole strikes could leave your tires compromised, and ready to blow out on a whim.

Hopefully your suspension survives pothole season unscathed, too. Many do not.

Pothole strikes can bend, snap, break, sever or deform all manners of suspension componentry. They can damage the rubber isolators or ‘bushings’ that cushion the metal-on-metal contact between the many complex arms and levers and joints and hubs and springs that comprise your vehicle’s front-end. They can aggravate poorly maintained parts. They can literally bust a wheel off of your car.

As your car goes about its day, a lot of things bolted to a lot of other things beneath it have to move together in a very specific arrangement to give you the ride you expect.

When your local potholes have caused wear and damage to one or all of the components of your vehicle’s suspension, your first warning sign is often a sound: a tick, bang, smash or clunk that you never noticed before. Maybe it comes and goes, or maybe it’s constant. Maybe it’s a minor-sounding clunk, or maybe you can feel it through the floor or your car.

Maybe you’re not even worried about it, and you’ll just turn up the radio.

You ever see a car on the side of the road being loaded onto a tow truck, a car that’s lost a wheel, or whose front wheels are pointed away from one another? They just turned up the radio, too.

Your Corner Wrench: Blow a tire? Check your wheel rim carefully

Point is, your tires and wheels and suspension are going to take a beating this spring — and if something feels or sounds wrong with your vehicle, it probably is. So, since safety isn’t optional, you’re best to get it checked out, just in case.

You can protect yourself from potholes in several ways.

Easiest among them is to slow down, leave more space, and therefore open up a bit more driver bandwidth for more frequent glancing down to the road to track down any hazards.

Following too closely is a great way to bust a rim, as you’ll have virtually no warning of the offending pothole until it’s too late to do anything about it. More distance the better — put a few car lengths of visible pavement between you and the next guy, and you reduce the risk a good measure.

I’m friends with numerous people who drive big trucks that aren’t bothered by even big and nasty potholes. A sport among some of these folks is to ‘lead’ tailgating cars into the biggest potholes on the road, which they can’t see ahead of time. As one friend put it “nothing stops people tailgating like demolishing a rim and tire, or two.”

Translation? Save a strut. Don’t tailgate.

Further pothole protection comes when you avoid the temptation to drive through huge puddles of standing water during the spring melt, and by remembering to apply as much breaking as possible ahead of an unavoidable pothole strike, easing off of the brake pedal at the last moment to help minimize the blow.

Checking tires and rims regularly is also important, as a pothole strike may cause a blowout now or cause lasting tire and wheel damage that could result in a blowout later. Cracked or bent wheels should be seen by a professional; ditto any tires that have visible gouging, slits or goose-egg like lumps on the sidewall. All of these indicate a potentially serious safety hazard.

When checking your tire sidewalls, don’t forget the inner sidewalls, too. If you only check the outer sidewalls, you’ve missed half of the areas where serious damage may be apparent. Those odds aren’t good enough for my family, and shouldn’t be for yours, either.

But what are you hearing when your suspension starts to clunk and knock and smash, anyhow? Usually, it’s metal-on-metal contact between two or more parts or surfaces. Perhaps something has been bent enough to hit something else that it’s not supposed to. Perhaps one or more of the dozens of rubber bushings has failed, and is no longer providing the noise-deadening cushion it’s designed to. Maybe something’s worn through something else and you’re about to loose a control arm and have a serious accident.

There’s a lot of stuff going on in your suspension, remember.

And that little noise could be something minor, severe, or anywhere in between. Use your ears, use your judgement, and remember: if in doubt, get it checked out.

Check out this video to see your car’s suspension in action, for a closer look at all of the parts and components that might be affected by a severe pothole strike.
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