Will your car insurance cover pothole damage?

Chris Kissell

Potholes and car insuranceSpring is finally here, and states across the northern tier of the U.S. have begun to thaw out from an especially brutal winter.

Just when drivers are about to exhale and enjoy the warm sunshine, a new menace is popping up on roads everywhere: potholes.

"With the approach of spring, pothole-related damage can be common," says Michal Brower, a spokeswoman for State Farm.

Potholes can occur in any climate, but they usually form when snow and ice melt and seep into cracks in the road surface.

When temperatures drop and the water refreezes, it expands, forcing the pavement to buckle and break.

A pothole can suddenly damage your car in many ways. Drive over one unexpectedly, and it could:

  • Mess with your car's steering system alignment.
  • Wreck shocks and struts.
  • Damage the engine or exhaust system.
  • Puncture a tire.
  • Bend wheel rims.

Fortunately, car insurance will cover the cost of most repairs. But there are a number of things to keep in mind before making a claim.

Will your car insurance cover pothole damage?

For starters, the damage only will be covered if you carry collision insurance. This coverage reimburses damage when you collide with another car or object.

Collision coverage is optional, and some drivers skip it.

"Those driving older cars sometimes drop this coverage as way of saving money," says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.

In 2011, 71 percent of drivers had collision coverage, according to the most recent statistics from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

In addition, the collision portion of your car insurance carries a deductible, usually between $250 and $1,000, Worters says.

Drivers may find that their deductible payment exceeds the cost of the repair, says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

"Damage from hitting a pothole can often be minor and not meet a $250, $500 or even $1,000 deductible," she says.

A 2011 study by State Farm found that vehicle repairs from damage caused by a pothole can cost drivers an average of between $300 and $700.

So depending on the size of your deductible, it may not make sense to file a claim unless the damage is severe, Worters says.

However, "if you've got $2,000 in damage to your car, it might be worth it," she says.

Some insurers also may place restrictions on the type of pothole damage they will cover.

"For instance, there may be limited coverage for damage to tires if the car itself wasn't affected by the pothole," Worters says.

Will my car insurance rates go up after a pothole damage claim?

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - because a claim for pothole-damage reimbursement falls under collision insurance, it's possible your insurer might raise your insurance rates.

Worters says whether your rates will rise will depend on your individual circumstances. She says insurers generally look at a policyholder's frequency of claims and severity of claims loss when deciding whether or not to raise rates.

"If the person has had a lot of claims over a short period of time, then there could be an increase in your rates," she says.

Brower says State Farm doesn't automatically raise rates for policyholders who file a claim for damage related to a pothole.

"Each individual customer's premium is determined at renewal time based on a wide variety of factors that come into play," she says.

Should you file a claim?

Walker says if the damage is relatively minor and the cost of repairs is manageable, it may be wise to pay for the repairs out of pocket rather than filing a claim that could boost your premiums.

"If the pothole is more like a small lake and causes major damage, then you'll likely want to file an insurance claim," she says.

Worters agrees that the severity of the damage - and the cost to repair it - should help you to decide whether or not to file a claim.

"It's more important to have insurance against large losses that could threaten your standard of living than to have protection against small losses you can afford to pay yourself," she says.

How to avoid pothole damage

The best way to avoid the expense of a pothole-related repair is to steer clear of the road divots whenever possible.

Brower says there are several things you can do to reduce your risk. For starters, stick to roads that you know well and drive a bit slower so you can see potholes before you end up in them.

"Travel on well-lit roads at night, so you can see the surface," Brower says.

If you do hit a pothole, carefully inspect the car's tires and wheels for possible damage and note how your car handles afterward.

If it pulls one way or the other -- or the steering feels wobbly -- have a mechanic look at the car, Brower says.

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