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What is a Pothole?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A pothole, or chuckhole, is a defect in a roadway caused by environmental factors such as ice, heat, and rain. Natural forces eat away at the roadway, creating a series of cracks. As the cracks start to grow deeper, chunks of pavement material separate, and are pulled out by the wheels of passing vehicles. The resulting hole in the surface of the road is known as a pothole: if it overtakes the boundaries of the roadway and starts to erode the dirt below, it is known as a sinkhole.

The origins of the term “pothole” are probably related to the characteristic shape, which is roughly circular and pot like. The term is also used by geologists to refer to natural erosion processes on rocks and in rivers which form basins. It is also used in some parts of the Western United States to describe a dirt or mud wallow used by cattle and pigs. All of the meanings of the word are clearly related, as they all describe pits or holes in a surface.

A pothole is the natural result of environmental conditions, especially in northern areas where the roadway freezes. When the road freezes, it expands, which will cause cracks. Extreme heat can also degrade the quality of the roadway. When combined with the heavy wear and tear of a multitude of vehicles, a pothole can form very rapidly. If it rains, the growth of the pothole will be accelerated, as the water will eat away at the bottom and sides of the pothole.

Potholes negatively affect driving conditions, because they make the road more coarse and bumpy. As chunks of pavement are pulled out, the pothole will grow every larger and deeper, and can spread quickly across the entire roadway if it is not quickly addressed. For this reason, road crews regularly inspect the road to monitor signs of potholes and arrest their growth if they are discovered.

Road crews fix a pot hole by filling it with replacement pavement material. Cold patches are used for small potholes in lightly trafficked areas because they can be quickly applied. Hot asphalt is used in high traffic areas or on large potholes, because it will hold much more effectively. If the road has become pitted with potholes, it may need to be resurfaced. Resurfacing a roadway involves stripping the upper layers of asphalt off, roughening the bottom layers, and applying a new upper roadway surface.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By wander — On Jul 25, 2011

@seag47 - If you have the misfortune of driving over a recently filled pothole and tar gets stuck to your car, it can actually be taken care of even after it has dried. If you go to your local automotive supply shop you can buy an oily bug and tar remover that will get the job done fast.

The kind of tar remover sold in automotive shops is designed to not hurt the finish on your car and works well with a special sponge. There is a car washing sponge that you can buy that comes with netting over the sponge. This works great with the tar remover.

By letshearit — On Jul 25, 2011

For those of you that live within a city limit it is a good idea to report any potholes you spot in your neighborhood to the appropriate city department. Often there is a road maintenance branch that takes care of repairs and can be called in for particularly troubling spots.

I remember moving into a new neighborhood and not far form my lane way was a massive pothole. Day in and day out I would watch cars hit it and see them thump as they hit. The pothole had to be at least three or four inches deep! That can cause a lot of damage if you're going to fast.

I did a search and found our city had a pothole hotline. I reported the pothole and it was fixed a week later.

By Denha — On Jul 24, 2011

@aLfredo- I had no idea in some areas you could actually file claims for pothole damage. It makes perfect sense, I just was not sure if there were a lot of communities out there that were willing and/or able to help out with the damage caused by a pothole and the repair that citizens' cars might need.

By aLFredo — On Jul 24, 2011

@geekish - Just as you can report a pothole, in some places you can actually file a claim as well if you incurred damage by a pothole.

Luckily, I have not had pothole damage occur and I am not sure how long it takes the pothole claim to get assessed, but I am glad they have the option as I am sure the damage can be bad if the pothole gets to be as large as some of the ones I have seen!

By geekish — On Jul 23, 2011

@snickerish - I am not sure if it is the same everywhere; however, in Boston there are two ways to report a pothole. If it is a state-maintained road then they have a special number for you to call.

For other potholes, the Boston actually states that they rely on people to report the potholes to get them filled!

We had one pothole on a road leading to a main road (so it was a well traveled road) that remained on that road for months. Luckily it was rather easy to avoid.

I had no idea you could call and report potholes, but I will be using that information to my advantage in the future. I’m not the best driver so needless to say I have hit my fair shares of potholes when in fact I was trying to avoid them!

By cloudel — On Jul 23, 2011

@kylee07drg - I use a liquid pothole filler that can be poured in without any special heating or pre-processing.

First, clean the area with a broom to get rid of loose debris. Then, poor the filler into a bucket, add the aggregate, and stir it for about 40 seconds. When it becomes liquefied, it is ready to pour.

The product levels itself, so you don’t have to spread it about with a spatula or anything. It hardens within 30 to 40 minutes, and you can start driving, walking, or skating on the area as soon as it does.

By snickerish — On Jul 22, 2011

I have always wondered who spent their time patching potholes and have always been thankful for them because I have hit a few potholes that I was sure caused my car damage!

Now my question is who decides which potholes get fixed by these pothole patchers? Or rather how do you get a pothole fixed? Just as mentioned by @seag47 you see some potholes get filled quickly while some roads such as county roads have some for long periods of time.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 22, 2011

Has anyone ever used a do-it-yourself pothole filler? I have some serious holes in my sidewalk and driveway, and I hate to pay to have someone come out here and do it if I could do it myself.

I am hoping there’s something out there that will bind really well to concrete and asphalt but doesn’t require any special equipment to use. I just can’t afford to call a concrete mixing company to come out here, but I really need to repair the area before it worsens. My nephew likes to skate out here, and I don’t want him tripping on a hole and breaking a leg.

By StarJo — On Jul 21, 2011

It’s a scary thing to suddenly hit a deep pothole while driving 55 mph. Sometimes, I come upon one, and it is too late to swerve. This happens at night a lot.

Though I have memorized where some of the worst ones are, sometimes I just don’t think about it until I’m upon one. I hear a kachunk-a-chunk as I bounce up into the air. I start to wonder if my tire is okay.

I personally have never had tire damage due to a pothole, but I have heard it is possible. Since I don’t have the strength to change my own flat, I try to just avoid hitting them.

By seag47 — On Jul 21, 2011

I am very familiar with potholes. I live on a county road that keeps them year-round. They do get repaired from time to time, but the county’s budget is pretty low for road work.

Our asphalt becomes extremely hot during the summer. You can actually see the road melting. When potholes get filled by crews in summer, you can hear them squish as you drive over them.

Also, you can hear the tar from the freshly filled pothole jumping up and sticking to the bottom of your vehicle. It is very hard to clean, and that sound fills me with dread.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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