Of course we think of potholes as hidden dangers. We don’t see them until it’s too late. And often what looks like a harmless puddle is actually a 14-inch deep crater, merely holding water from last night’s rain.
But aside from the jarring fright of a sudden, unexpected bump, and the unnerving shock at the cost to repair a car (from damaged tires, rims, alignments, catalytic converters, etc.), we may not often think about the true physical dangers of potholes. It’s no exaggeration to say that potholes kill. But not always in ways one might expect.
First, potholes are particularly dangerous to motorcycle riders and bicyclists. Of the 743 bicyclists killed in vehicle crashes in 2013, as well as the 48,000 bikers who experienced serious injuries, 13 percent (about 100 fatalities and 6240 injuries) were due to pavement conditions. This is according to a 2012 study, which derives from data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
Motorcyclist deaths and injuries due to poor pavement are even greater. Roadway defects are among the top reasons for motorcycle accidents, which lead to 4,810 deaths and 88,000 life-changing injuries in a typical year.
But consider also the 4+ wheel vehicles as well; flat tires and swerving to avoid getting flat tires can lead to all kinds of unexpected problems:
Unauthorized detours. In the Buffalo, NY surburb of Amherst, a driver routinely avoided a particularly rough section of pavement on the road by cutting through a truck yard on private property. The owner of that property allegedly threatened the driver with a gun, which was then reported to the police in January 2015.
Swerving into oncoming traffic. A fatal crash killed a father and his 9-year-old son, and critically injured two other children in the vehicle, that occurred in Oakland County, Michigan in January 2015. Investigators believe the driver hit a large pothole on Pontiact Trail in Lyon Township, which was the likely reason the car then swerved into the oncoming lane where it was struck. The county road commission said the pothole had been filled with a temporary patch in winter conditions only days prior. In another Detroit-area town, Deerborn Heights, an experienced 60-year-old motorcyclist was critically injured by a pothole in 2014. In both cases, the sites of the accident were in low areas affected by water accumulation, a typical pothole-creating scenario.
Road rage and bullets. In Gary, Indiana, a cautious 33-year-old driver was driving slowly – as is recommended – on the Borman Expressway, to avoid damage to her car from potholes. Another driver pulled alongside her and fired a gun several times in her direction, with one bullet piercing her bumper and entering the trunk of the vehicle. She was uninjured and the shooter fled.
Tires blow miles later. Tires are built with a great deal more resilience today than 25 years ago; characteristics such polyester cord plies, steel belts and heavy cushion synthetic rubber make them almost ready for battle. But the terms of engagement with potholes still allow for damage that expresses itself many miles after a pothole hit. A high-speed impact with a pothole can weaken or stretch those cords and belts, or break the adhesion of the steel belts to the surrounding rubber. The heat generated by travel further deteriorates the tire to the point of a blowout dozens or hundreds of miles later. A tragic crash involving a church bus, an SUV and a tractor-trailer truck on Interstate 40 in Tennessee in October 2013 provides a vivid example. Investigators found a blown tire on the bus led the driver to lose control and cross the median; the tire at fault, in otherwise good condition, was likely damaged by pavement conditions about 50 miles earlier in the bus journey. Eight people from all three vehicles died in the crash.
Potholes may seem like nuisances, and they certainly create costs for motorists, including both individual and commercial vehicle operators. But the conditions of roads are affecting drivers and passengers in very serious ways. And in most places, those conditions are getting worse.