Where in the world did that come from? All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the road just opened up and swallowed your car. Whole. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration. But it sure seemed that way. Now, you are on the side of the road with a flat tire and who knows what else. Potholes are no joke. Neither is the damage they can cause to your car.
What is the damage that can result from a rendezvous with a pothole? Can a collision with one of these unworldly chasms that appear seemingly out of nowhere end in destruction? In today’s world of weight-saving, lighter-weight vehicles with oversized rims and low-profile tires, the answer is a resounding “yes”. Significant damage can occur.
What follows here is a description of the components of a vehicle steering and suspension system along with highlights of the damage that can happen when you run into a pothole or other road hazard.
The typical steering and suspension systems on a modern car, truck, or SUV have several components in common, starting with the most important: the tires. Tires may vary in speed rating, size, and tread pattern, but they all serve the purpose of maintaining traction with the ground so you can move and (more importantly) stop. The tires are the only components in contact with the ground. So they are pretty important. They are also the first components that come in contact with a pothole, and therefore suffer (in many cases) the most damage. Punctures, sidewall cuts, and broken radial belts inside the tire are all examples of what can happen to cause a flat and a tire in need of replacement.
Likewise, a wheel can become bent or broken if it hits a pothole. Often when this happens, the tire loses pressure as well. Steel wheels usually bend, whereas aluminum rims can bend or crack. In any case, a damaged wheel needs to be replaced.
Connecting the wheel to the suspension system is the wheel hub and bearing. Together, these components serve to reduce friction (with a collection of ball bearings) as the wheel spins. While it is not common for a hub and bearing to go bad from a collision with a pothole, it is possible for minor damage to occur that can get worse over time, causing the wheel bearing to fail.
The hub and bearing are inserted into, or bolted onto, the knuckle. When located at the front of a car, this component is called a steering knuckle. In addition to holding on to the hub and bearing, the steering knuckle also turns with the steering wheel, allowing the front wheels to change directions.The steering knuckle is attached by way of the ball joint to the lower control arm at the bottom, and to either an upper control arm or to the strut assembly at the top. When you hit a pothole, the steering knuckle can bend and cause problems with the wheel alignment, and the ball joint can break or rupture.
The strut assembly is comprised of a shock absorber running through the center of a coil spring. It runs from the steering knuckle to the vehicle body (at the top) and is designed to absorb the up and down motion of the wheels and tires on the road to keep the vehicle level. They help to keep the tires in constant contact with the ground as the weight of the vehicle shifts. The struts are also the side-to-side pivot point of the steering system. A severe impact with a pothole can cause a shock absorber to leak fluid, can bend the rod in the shock absorber, or could cause damage to the upper strut mount to the body.
Another potential victim of pothole impact is a control arm. The control arm connects the knuckle and strut to the rest of the car (usually attached to a lower crossmember), rising and falling over bumps in the road. All vehicles will have a lower control arm; some will also have an upper control arm. If either is likely to be damaged by a pothole, it will be the lower. This is a common pothole problem.
Another common problem is a bent tie rod, the part that connects the steering knuckle to the steering gear (also called a power steering rack). When you turn the steering wheel, the gear/rack moves the tie rods, which, in turn, move the wheels left or right. When a wheel impacts a pothole, the tie rods are a weak link and can bend, causing the steering wheel to be off center and the wheel alignment to be off as well.
Other components that could see problems, though less likely, are the steering gear/rack itself, the links that connect the steering knuckle to the sway bar, or the CV axle shaft. If damage happens to these, you probably have a lot of other damage as well.
If you and your ride have been the victim of a pothole and your tire blew out, or if you sense that the car isn’t driving the way it should – the steering wheel is off kilter or the car tracks to the right or left when you let go of the wheel – the first order of business is to have a suspension inspection and a wheel alignment done. The results will lead a technician to the damaged steering and suspension components, some of which may be difficult to visually identify.
With the data from the alignment measurement, the technician will remove and replace any damaged components and follow up with another alignment to adjust the steering and suspension parts and to verify that they are within specifications.
If you choose to ignore bent or broken steering or suspension components, well, that is bad. Vehicle safety is compromised. Ride comfort is reduced. The life of your tires is diminished. And further damage to related parts is likely. Make sure to have your car evaluated as soon as possible if you had an encounter with a monster pothole.
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