Stay alert, slow down, don’t swerve: how to avoid and safely navigate potholes

A pothole filled with muddy water

Nicola Dowse

Posted October 31, 2022

Potholes are a common driving hazard capable of wreaking havoc on your vehicle. Knowing how to avoid – and in the worst case scenario, safely drive over them – is a must for all motorists.  

There’s nothing like the ‘ker-thunk’ of driving over a pothole to make your stomach sink. The common road obstacle is more than just unpleasant too, with potholes capable of doing serious damage to your car – as well as your bank balance.

RACV’s My Country Road survey of 4,000 Victorians revealed that potholes are a leading safety concern on the state’s regional roads, though the driving hazard can form anywhere, including on urban streets.

But you don’t have to take potholes lying down. Find out how you can reduce your risk of hitting a pothole, how to get them fixed, and what to do if you’ve no choice but to hit a pothole.

What causes potholes?

Wet weather is the enemy when it comes to potholes, as demonstrated by the almost 43,000 potholes (and counting) repaired following Victoria’s 2022 October floods. 

When water seeps into cracks in the road’s surface it causes the surface to weaken and split. This process is exacerbated by the pressure of vehicles travelling over the road, eventually leading to chunks of the asphalt coming away entirely – resulting in a pothole. 

Once the primary pothole has formed, they can easily grow in size and depth. Vehicles passing over the pothole can progressively erode more and more asphalt, while rain or flooding can wash away more road surface. In cold regions, the freezing - and the consequent expansion – of water in the asphalt can result in potholes, as can heavy vehicle traffic travelling over roads not designed for their weight class.

An SUV driving through a wet road

You might notice more potholes after heavy rain, as water is a main cause of potholes. Photo: Matt Harvey. 

Who’s responsible for fixing potholes?

There isn’t one entity responsible for the repair of potholes. Rather, it depends on the road.

In Victoria, VicRoads is responsible for potholes on arterial roads and freeways – this map shows you the organisation's jurisdiction. 

Local councils are responsible for the non-arterial roads within their municipalities, while Parks Victoria and the Department of Land, Water and Planning manage the non-arterial state roads. Privately owned roads like the CityLink freeway are the responsibility of the controlling corporation.  

If you see a pothole, reporting it to the relevant authority is the best way to get it fixed. You can find out more about this process and the right organisation to contact by following this handy guide.

Potholes are fixed by filling in the hole with either cold mix or hot mix asphalt. Hot mix is the more durable option, but unlike cold mix, it can only be applied when the ground is dry. This means that in prolonged periods of wet weather - during which potholes are more likely to form - the only option is to use cold mix asphalt. However, this asphalt wears down faster and is more akin to a band-aid solution until hot mix can be applied. 

The dangers of potholes

Silvia Morris, Senior Instructor for RACV Drive School, says the damage that potholes can do should not be underestimated. 

“Large potholes have the potential to cause severe damage to your tyres, wheels, suspension, exhaust and/or vehicle body, and in some cases can even lead to drivers losing control of their vehicle,” she says.  

“Even small ones can cause wear and tear to your vehicle’s suspension and steering which can be costly.”

If you accidentally hit a pothole, it’s a good idea to check your car for signs of damage. This includes sagging or bulging tyres, cracked or misshapen rims, and damage to the vehicle’s body. 

Pay extra attention to how your car drives in the days following as well, keeping an eye out for signs like your steering pulling to one side, your wheel vibrating, or persistent new sounds. 

Carrying a spare, properly inflated tyre with you means you’ve a contingency plan if you do hit a pothole, or contact RACV Emergency Roadside Assist to get you back on the road in no time.


An asphalt road being fixed

Hot mix asphalt is the most durable pothole fix, but cold mix can serve as an interim solution. Photo: Getty.

How to safely drive on a road with potholes 

Avoidance is the best strategy when dealing with potholes and there are a few ways you can reduce your risk of hitting these hazards.  

Keep your distance 

“Leaving safe following distances is one of the most effective ways to minimise your risk,” Morris says. In good conditions, a three-second following distance is recommended, with an additional second added for every condition that reduces visibility (rain, fog or darkness).  

“This can provide you with the additional time you need to recognise, react, and respond appropriately to potholes.” 

Stay alert 

Always be mindful of where other drivers are on the road, as this will allow you to make safe decisions if you do spot an upcoming pothole. This is especially important on multi-lane roads where you might try to avoid a pothole by moving into another lane.  

“If you are aware there is another driver approaching you, you will be unlikely to swerve into their lane, and you can plan a safer avoidance strategy,” says Morris. 

Hands on the wheel 

“We often see people driving with one hand, or with their hands positioned lazily at the bottom of the steering wheel,” Morris says. “These are dangerous habits as if the driver unexpectedly hits a pothole they are not in a position to readily take control of their vehicle.” 

Keep in mind that your hands should be positioned at 9 and 3 on the steering wheel, not 10 and 2.  

Drive to conditions 

Some road or driving conditions make it more likely that you’ll encounter or hit a pothole. These include driving at night and driving on rough roads. Slow down to increase the amount of time you’ll have to spot and safely avoid a pothole. And beware of driving through puddles says Morris. 

“Some puddles can be hiding large potholes underneath them, so you should avoid driving over puddles where possible, and never drive through floodwaters.” 

How to drive safely over a pothole 

Unfortunately, sometimes your only option is to hit the pothole. But even in this event there are ways to minimise the damage.  

The most important thing to remember is don’t swerve. “This is a very dangerous decision and could cause you to lose control of your vehicle or dangerously put you in the path of another vehicle,” Morris says.  

“In these situations, a better decision would be to hit the pothole rather than risk hitting another vehicle or losing control of your vehicle.” 

When approaching an unavoidable pothole, grip your steering wheel firmly and keep your wheels straight. Slow down, but release your brakes before impact (“Applying the brakes at the time you hit the pothole can cause more damage,” Morris says). 

Be prepared for every situation 
RACV Emergency Roadside Assist can help