2010: The Year of the Pothole?

potholeI have a new nemesis. Its name is 287. Precisely a stretch of 287W between Exit 8 in White Plains, New York and the Tappan Zee Bridge. Driving home a few days ago, I felt like the little frog in the old video game except rather than manically switching lanes trying to avoid getting smashed by cars, I was weaving trying to avoid potholes. I am not the only one.

Thanks to the vicious winter, the potholes this year are not only more prevalent – they're bigger. A recent USA Today story cited a tripling of potholes in Wichita, a doubling of the amount of material needed last year for repairs in Sioux Falls, and an extra $12 million just added to the road maintenance budget for the state of Iowa.

But what do you do when one not only ruins your trip but also does damage to your car or tires? As long as you have collision and comprehensive coverage, think about calling your auto insurer, suggests the Insurance Information Institute. Collision insurance pays for damage to your car itself – and if you have this coverage your car is covered no matter who is at fault. Comprehensive coverage pays for theft, fire and vandalism.

In this case collision takes the heat, says institute spokesman Michael Barry. It protects you in the event of the "upset of your covered auto or a non-owned auto or their impact with another vehicle or object," in this case the object being the gap in the ground.

Unlike liability coverage, which most states require you to buy, collision and comprehensive are optional. You of course want them when your car is new – or even newish (and if you borrowed to buy the car, your lender may require it). Even relatively minor issues (like the smashed rear taillight my Volvo suffered when it was rear-ended by a minivan last month) can cost four figures to fix.

The coverage isn't free – collision and comprehensive premiums average a combined $440 annually to the three-quarters of drivers who buy them -- "but those additional premium dollars pay big dividends when a pothole wreaks havoc on your car's undercarriage or a flash flood soaks your vehicle's interior," said Barry. Generally, it's not necessary for very old models or those when the cost of paying for this insurance is more than 1/10th the value of the car.

But note: You'll want to weigh filing a claim against two things – the size of your deductible and the amount your premium will go likely go up. Most collision policies have a $500 deductible. That means if a pothole causes a blowout – which would likely run a few hundred to repair – you're going to want to pay out of pocket. If it seriously damages the underside of your car however, it may be worth it.

As for the impact on your premium, filing a claim that costs your insurer a significant amount of money will very likely cause your premium to rise. But a fender bender? Or small pothole-related incident? As long as you haven't filed a series of small claims, chances are decent that your premiums will hold steady.

Your taxes however – as municipalities struggle to come up with the necessary dollars to fix these damn things – are another story entirely.
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